Prison’s long shadow: Stigma haunts former convicts

About 6,000 sentenced prisoners are released each month
About 6,000 sentenced prisoners are released each month

Sarah Jacobs says her son, Karoles, 34, walked out of Douglas Medium Security Prison in the Northern Cape two years ago “but those walls still cast a long shadow over his life”.

Two years later she buried him.

Karoles, she says, was released early from prison for good behaviour following a robbery, assault and murder conviction.

Upon his return into “the outside world”, he survived on piece work.

His mother said that “the stigma of having been convicted of those crimes would not leave him. (It) followed him everywhere, and he couldn’t find permanent employment”.

After his release from prison, Sarah told OurHealth that Karoles also became a father but she alleges that the family of his daughter’s mother treated him poorly as well because he was an ex-convict.

Sarah believes the high level of stigma attached to being a former inmate drove her son to commit suicide as it was difficult for him to re-enter the community.

Acting head of Douglas Prison, Trevor Matthews, said the Department of Correctional Services does prepare inmates for their release and parole officers monitor inmates on parole regularly.

However, social worker Elsabie Steenkamp, said it is not always easy for people to pick up the warning signs that someone may be feeling suicidal. She added that communities should not discriminate against ex-offenders who have served their time.

But for Sarah much is left unanswered. “I don’t really know how I feel. I am still trying to make sense of it. I can’t get over what happened.”

Stigma could add to mental health woes

About 6,000 sentenced prisoners are released each month in South Africa, according to Lukas Muntingh, co-founder and project co-ordinator of Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative at the University of Western Cape. [quote float= right]The stigma of having been convicted of those crimes would not leave him. (It) followed him everywhere, and he couldn’t find permanent employment”

He says complex factors play a role in former prisoners’ ability to re-integrate into society

“You have to take individual factors into account. You can’t only say stigmatisation is the root cause or everything bad but it certainly plays a part,” Muntingh said.

Muntingh says that people re-entering society from prison are stigmatised and remain marginalised within their communities of origin, although different communities can have different reactions.

Muntingh’s small, 2008 study conducted among about 40 Cape Town prisoners found that less than a third were able to get employment.

Of the third who did get employment, most of the employment was either going back to their old jobs or into family-run business. Only three former prisoners in the study managed to get employment when competing in the open market.

Muntingh adds that many prisoners he interviewed were optimistic prior to their release.

“All were optimistic about their release and had distinct hopes of what they wanted to achieve post release, such as getting a job, getting married, buying a car. Yet one month later when I re-interviewed them, the overwhelming picture is that most had not fulfilled their goals. Ultimately they did not have the soft or hard skills, the capacity nor the support,” he told OurHealth.

Muntingh added that if people “are marginalised and can’t contribute meaningfully to their household and have unemployment stresses that build up over time, this may aggravate a situation.

“It can be a frustrating situation and very disappointing situation. With very little support from the departments serving them and their communities, and other support structures, some turn to crime again (or suffer further with mental health issues),” said Muntingh adding that research has also shown that mental health problems are often more prevalent among prison populations. “Stigmatisation can add to mental health problems”.


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