New technology erases the social stigma of former prisoners

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Devie Rahmawati
Permanent Lecturer, Communications
Vocation Program, University of Indonesia

IO – Articles and shows about living in correctional facilities displayed in the media easily attract the attention of the masses. Imprisonment has a dark romance because we usually associate “imprisonment” with “worst punishment for taking a life” and “a horrible place where people get violent and frequently lose their lives”. An individual’s existence just before, during, and after detention in correctional facilities is never easy. The transition from the prison community into the wider community is a challenge of social integration that all former prisoners must face. Their painful situation encountered upon leaving prison does not only occur in our Homeland, but is actually a global issue.

Several qualitative studies have revealed that former prisoners’ biggest challenges to return to communities outside of correctional facilities are psychological and economic burdens. At an individual level, the tension when returning to the community may be even bad enough to cause mental collapse. Such situations are enough to trigger negative health impacts, such as drug addiction (Binswanger et al. 2007). Psychological and economic situations frequently burden the former prisoner as s/he attempts to rekindle social relations in the community. A large number of families or other “nearest and dearest” of the former prisoners are precisely the ones who reject them the strongest, an irony because successful social integration is more likely when family or friends are present to provide emotional and material stability (Irwin 1970, 175).

Most former prisoners do not have the academic and administrative capacities to qualify for formal occupations. This forces them to remain unemployed, or to only get low-paying jobs when their time is done – work that does not provide them insurance or pensions. This condition is worsened by the discriminative perception of the public in general. Employers usually refuse to employ known former prisoners because they feel that they cannot trust them, further increasing their chance of losing work (Western, 2007).

In a study performed across 15 states in the US, the stigma inherent in former prisoners is generally the main reason why they return to correctional facilities within 3 years after their release. This stigma expresses itself in social exclusion to these individuals, causing them to feel underestimated and marginalized. The study found that the two main reasons why former prisoners are not generally employed in formal sectors are: a) the consumers of the company’s products and/or services would feel uncomfortable when they discover that they are being served by a former prisoner (81%); and b), many people feel the same discomfort when they realize that they are working with former prisoners (70%).

Such stigma limits former prisoners’ access to normal life in the community. It worsens an individual’s performance, because the former prisoner will not be able to concentrate from worrying about what others think of him/her. When a former prisoner feels that s/he can never be free from his/her past, s/he loses the incentive to refrain from criminal actions. Public stigma is generally strong enough to completely cover individual qualities and characteristics. A multiple stigma may also fall on an individual former prisoner in addition to his/her status of being a former criminal if s/he has the “wrong” religion, culture, or race according to the society where s/he is released into.

This uncertainty about their survival and future frequently forces former prisoners to again fall back into illegal activities, which will sooner or later send them back to prison. The duration of their imprisonment changes them a lot from before their time in the correctional facilities, making it hard for them to even think of readjusting to life outside prison.

New technologies vastly change our social environs. Studies show that social integration will occur when former prisoners obtain sufficient social support that would prevent them from being recidivists or repeat offenders (Bellair & Kowalski, 2011). There are 3 possible scenarios former prisoners might face on returning to the community: their social lives might still be same as before their imprisonment, they might get better, or they might worsen.

A former prisoner’s life after his/her sentence is decided is divided into 4 stages: acceptance, adjustment, adaptation, and reintegration.

In the acceptance stage, the inmate must get used to the fact that they are no longer part of society, that they are now sequestered for both their own safety and the safety of the public. In the next stage, individuals make adjustments that enable them to survive the routines of the prison. They also learn how to reintegrate themselves with people in society, how to live together in the same space with each other again according to the rules that apply in society, formally or informally. In the adjustment stage, former prisoners undergo various programs such as training, therapy, etc. Ideally, their family and friends outside also receive counselling about how to treat these prisoners properly and reintegrate them into society. And finally, the prisoner is released to live back again in the community outside of the correctional facilities.

According to studies from abroad, the effort to obtain a new and better life needs preparation, such as by doing work within the correctional facilities. The work helps the inmates prepare and integrate themselves within and outside of detention centers. Most of the work available in correctional facilities is related to the daily needs or maintenance of these facilities, such as cleaning, cooking, food distributing, and crafting or tailoring: folding, packaging, and assembling items.

The production processes performed by these inmates are usually simple and repetitive. They do not need special qualifications or training, and they have little added value. Furthermore, correctional facility work mostly has different rules from the work standards “outside” (minimum wage standard, incentives, etc.), which means that inmates do not benefit much from their work in their correctional facilities.

This is different from the situation in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom, where many privately-owned companies actually open business branches in prison. These prisoners are duly paid for their work inside. Furthermore, the skills being taught to the inmates are very much applicable outside of correctional facilities. Therefore, they have both money and skills to help them get started again outside.

Yet this capital is far for being enough to “buy” the public’s trust in these former prisoners. This condition is the reason why University of Indonesia’s (UI) Community Service (CS) team designed programs for inmates’ capacity building, so that these prisoners have easy-to-develop, salable skills when they return outside.

The CS Program emphasizes the transfer of knowledge about information technologies, which serve as a promotional tool for former prisoners. The stigma that halts their step when moving on with their lives is resolved when technology becomes their new social face. Technology is able to limit the need for physical contact, thus reducing the potential for the community to discover the identity of former prisoners, and to be biased against them.

Technology provides a new stage for former prisoners. It gives them psychological encouragement to explore and reach out to the world. They can build up new, positive identities, which is proven to serve as a base for productive work for former prisoners (Maruna, 2004).

UI’s CS team transfers their knowledge about common, current information technology software to former prisoners so that these former inmates can create new digital images and identities based on factual data, but presented in a flattering manner in order to attract netizens. When they have succeeded in framing themselves and their skills attractively, they upload their digital data to the net. When an inmate sees him or herself as a positive figure in social media or other profiles, they now have the social incentive to avoid unnecessary risks that can jeopardize this new image and identity they are now so proud of.