Help Unlock the Second Prison', the tagline from Yellow Ribbon Project, describes that the ex-offenders, upon release from the prisons, will be locked up by the 'walls' built up by the society. Because of the perception of the public towards these ex-inmates, they often found difficulties in seeking employment. Such prejudice and discrimination will result in ex-inmates receiving fewer benefits, not just affecting the ex-offenders, but also their families. Fi the situation does not improve, inequality will continue to exist in the society. We should then implement pragmatic solutions to alleviate the discrimination against them.
Ex-offenders, also known as ex-convicts, are those who have been released from prison or those with a criminal record or history (Wikipedia). Every year in Singapore, around 11,000 ex-convicts are released back to the society (Singapore Prison Service). Some of the common offences are offences against persons such as assault, offences against property such as robbery, sexual offences, drug offences and white collar crimes (Criminal Law). Employment is one of the key indicators on whether these former inmates are able to successfully re-integrate into the society. Looking at some of the employment statistics, Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises (SCORE) expanded their database with 2,118 employers in their database and Industrial & Services Co-Operative Society (ISCOS) has helped 3,000 ex-offenders to find jobs so far. In this essay, I seek to explore and compare discrimination on ex-offenders, especially employment opportunities, as well as its implications in Singapore with United States. After having knowledge about the issue, I will propose solutions across government, organisational and individual level.
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Many people would have known there are support programmes such as the Yellow Ribbon Project and other organisations such as Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises (SCORE), to help ex-offenders reintegrate into the society. Although these support programmes exist, we need to consider its effectiveness in helping ex-offenders to reintegrate into the society. The re-integration rate will therefore serves an indication of the level of discrimination against these ex-offenders.
Furthermore, there is little interaction with between the public and former inmates as the public shun away and feel that they do not deserve all the benefits such as housing and tax benefits. It is therefore important that we recognize the existence of such stereotyping and raise awareness to reduce the degree of discrimination and to assist these ex-offenders.
After these former inmates leave their physical incarceration, they are faced with the second prison, i.e. family, friends, employers and the community at large. Most of the offenders have tattoos on their body, which signifies status, power and belonging to a certain group. Because of stereotyping, we tend to group people who have tattoos as those who have committed crimes and thus, concluding that they are gangsters and criminals. We are often afraid that we might be the next victim of these "gangsters and criminals" that we stand a distance away from them or go towards a crowded area.
On an organisational level, we can see that some employers are still unwilling to hire ex-offenders, because they believe that 'leopards can never change its spots'. It is heartening to see the number of ex-offenders being employed have increased with the years but we cannot guarantee that they have been given equal employment rights as the others. For example, some employers resorted to background grounds before make decisions with regards to employment. From the papers, excited applicants applied for a job at the Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands casinos, but before the official opening, at least 30 employees had to leave their job. All of them failed the Casino Regulatory Authority (CRA)'s background checks and hence their contracts were voided. One of the affected employees had failed to declare his shoplifting offence. We realised that there is no difference on whether if those with criminal records declared or not, they still had their contracts terminated anyway.
While we understand the concerns over criminal history as the amount of money handled in casinos are in large sum, we need to consider if these history are necessarily the best and sole predictors for future performance. Do we judge those have continuously erred and condemn that they do not deserve the chance to repent?
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For this case, suggestions would be to put those people who have a criminal record on a period of probation instead of sacking them. Some of the youths interviewed felt that the move by the casinos are not wrong, because we cannot guarantee that people will not be driven by greed and if there are any troubles, the public may complain and question on why the casinos were built in the first place and why were no precautions taken. Hence, it is only right to conduct background checks on them. Besides that, jobs can still be offered to them in the "less risky" areas.
In addition, job applicants are often required to fill up the employment application form and declare that if they have been convicted in a court in any country before. Because this is usually a one-liner question, ex-offenders' applications can be filtered out without considering the seriousness of the offences or even the recidivism rate of the offender. This may therefore provide an opportunity for employers to screen out ex-offenders and justify if there any inappropriate acts in the company in future. Generally, these applicants can expect that there will no reply from the company, and this may encourage them to lie about their background. If the ex-offender is caught lying, they will be automatically disqualified while declaration of their history may not be always disqualify them. We encourage all ex-offenders to be honest with the past.
In the United States, the discrimination against ex-offenders is so great that they are deprived of the basic rights of voting. Without voting rights, this means that the policies and laws implemented could be against their rights. In 2008, the legislation amended the law to allow voting.
Section III - Why is it important for us to talk about it?
The society plays a significant role in the reintegration of the ex-offenders. It is important that we recognise that these ex-offenders are human beings too. To err is human. Whether they have committed a great sin in the past or not, they still belong to the society. They are able-bodied and are eager to contribute to the society and economy. However, despite their eagerness, we shun and discriminate them, and assume that they will revert back to their old ways. In the end, the society is unable to progress as a whole. We need to prove that former convicts are assets to the society.
Also, when these ex-offenders are not able to secure a job, even on short-term, to get their income, they will revert back to their old ways to get the money to survive. The recvidism rate in Singapore has remained at 25 % since 2006 (Prisons-SCORE Corporate Advance 2009) . This is much lesser than the recidivism rate in California, where 70% revert back to their old ways. It is expensive to maintain the prison as well as support rehabilitative programmes. The economic costs, which comes from tax payers increased further when these ex-offenders recidivise. The major prisons in United States, such as the one in New York, faced increased pressure to release their prisoners after minimum serving period or putting them through programmes rather than prisons. The state spends $2.5 billion a year to maintain its corrections department. Sudden surge of ex-offenders was too overwhelming and many recidivise due to insufficient and effective rehabilitative and support programmes. The revolving door is very expensive, it adds $1 billion a year to California's overburdened penal system (Another By-Product of the Recession: Ex-convicts, TIME).
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Section IV - Where can we start to fix the problem?
As mentioned previously, these former inmates faced discrimination in the public and most importantly, at the workplace. Without a job, they will not be able to survive and support their families, especially if they are the breadwinner of the family. When this happens, they are not able to afford basic necessities. Their families may also suffer as a result of poor education and may need to come out to work. Their spouse and children may grow up thinking why should life be so demanding and will then resort to crimes to get what they wanted. It is difficult for ex-offenders to live a better life when they are not given the same opportunities. This will continue as a vicious cycle.
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To reduce and even eliminate the stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination against these ex-offenders, it is important that we find out the root causes of this issue and implement various programmes and activities to encourage active participation as increased interaction may improve the perspective of the public towards ex-offenders.
To begin with, organizations should organize more activities to bring ex-offenders a step closer to the public. It is hoped that through such activities, it provides both the public and ex-offenders an opportunity to interact and hence, develop a sense of trust among them. Such activities may be visit to the prisons and / or halfway houses, outdoor and indoor activities, community service projects or even, encourage ex-offenders to participate in existing events such as Yellow Ribbon Prison Run. Through interaction, it may change the perspective of the public towards them and therefore reduce the extent of discrimination.
Many ex-offenders have low self-esteem and are afraid of rejection. Therefore, we should involve the ex-offenders in the planning and executing of events in the community. These events provide an opportunity for the former inmates to showcase their talents in various areas.
The public are aware that it is difficult for ex-offenders to find and secure jobs. Also, from an interview with an ex-offender from Highpoint Community Services Association in 2009, I found out that employers often do not want to give ex-offenders a second chance. This outright act of non-acceptance already killed the only hope that these ex-offenders have to reintegrate into the society. As such, more organizations should start working on a campaign on hiring ex-offenders. These campaigns should focus on instilling the correct mindset of treating the ex-offenders and also their ability to work as well as any other ordinary person.
As much as I acknowledge that nobody can be free from discrimination, including employers, research shows that provision work is important. In addition, more jobs seminars should be introduced to increase the employment opportunities available to ex-offenders. To enhance the public confidence in them, we can consider cooperating with companies to provide these ex-offenders transitional jobs as probationers, to start them off for several years so that they have relevant working experience, instead of merely skills acquiring in the rehabilitative programmes. After the transition period, these organizations can also help to recommend the employees to other companies.
Besides the technical skills acquired from the support programmes, the programmes should also focus on soft skills such as interpersonal skills. These ex-convicts should also learn more about resume writing and interview skills, as these will help them to market themselves well.
For the declaration of whether the job applicant has been convicted in court before, we should further improve on the question so that it allows the ex-offender to declare that they have convicted for which offences and also the year of conviction. In this case, the employers benefit as they can take note of the offences made, and be aware that these are not detrimental to the interests of the company and other stakeholders. This is because if the ex-offenders cause any troubles, the company will be the party that suffers the heaviest losses. Also, the job applicants gains from this as the employers are practising selective screening rather than a total elimination. There are also calls to ban the declaration box. However, I feel that the employers are right to protect their interests and the ex-offenders should be honest and convince the employers on their efforts to stay out of crime.
As noted above, generally the society has the perspective that ex-offenders are likely to revert back to their old ways. Hence, it is important that we improve the rehabilitation programme to reduce the chances of such cases occurring. We need to note that the limitation of the rehabilitation programmes as decision to go back to old ways varies from the circumstances faced by the ex-offenders.
If the solutions proposed above are being implemented on a long-term basis, we could see that less discrimination acts towards ex-offenders and the Singapore will move towards a much more forgiving society.