As a society we have a strange obsession with crime. We binge watch tv shows dedicated to murderers and fill newspapers with stories of people committing terrible deeds or being dragged into criminal actions. We’re sympathetic in some cases, outraged in others; but all the while there’s an interest. We shape the narrative about the life of anyone convicted of a crime, influenced by popular culture and the misconceptions from films. However, how does this embedded perception of prison and people convicted of a crime affect their lives after they have served their time? What are we subliminally stereotyping anyone involved in crime to be?
If someone commits a crime and are convicted to serve a prison sentence because of it, there is an unspoken question about what their life will be like afterwards. Unless they’re given a life sentence, there will be a time after prison for them. Currently though, that time is affected by a stigma about the type of person who goes to prison or the impact prison has on your character. While we recognise that not every convicted criminal is the real-world embodiment of Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons, there’s stigma that everyone with a criminal record is less trustworthy and a less deserving participant in society. Families and friends find it difficult to forgive any level of offence sometimes, severing key relationships when the offender is most vulnerable. This psychological manipulation of the situation can make people feel like they can’t integrate with society after prison; only worsened by the fact that they’re trying to adapt from the strict structure of life behind bars. Such social isolation leading them to mental health issues like depression and poor anger management, which will increase their chances of re-offending. And the mission for everyone should be to reduce the number of people who are led to re-offend, as re-offending costs the economy somewhere in the region of £11 billion.
No matter what your thoughts are about the criminal justice system and its sentencing laws, every human deserves a level of respect; and this should extend to those who have served time in prison. After all, we don’t know everyone’s story: we don’t know what circumstances led them to offend and whether they have managed to escape negative influences. Therefore, we shouldn’t immediately assume to understand about someone’s character or actions just because of a criminal record. Within social work, we regularly see how children and young people can be exploited into committing criminal acts, or vulnerable adults manipulated into taking part in an activity that could lead them to prison. Guilt is not set out by a criminal conviction but by the honest reality of events.
Many people discover that after leaving prison they struggle to find steady employment, putting them in a precarious financial position and more at risk of becoming homeless or reoffending. Some of this is partly due to the stigma associated with having spent time in prison. There seems to be an unwillingness to accept the idea of rehabilitation or change; that someone who has been sent to prison must have something in their DNA making them “a criminal”. Some people commit atrocious acts and betray the laws of human decency; this is an undeniable fact of life. Our true-crime show obsessions teach us that terrible people do exist in this world. And many of those terrible people do end up in prison. But does that intrinsically mean that every person who is sent to prison is of the same character? Shouldn’t we stop ourselves from tarring everyone with the same brush?
Stories have been shared that highlight how “the true sentence began” after leaving prison. People feel their opportunities are vastly restricted just by the fact they have any form of a criminal record, and there is no consideration to their individuality or circumstances. Surely this must make us think whether we’re making the post-prison life as fair as it could or should be? Some crimes can not be understood, forgiven or forgotten. But some, less serious offences that still involve prison-time must leave the person open to rehabilitation. And if someone is shown to be actively trying to change their ways and become a positive contribution to society; are we letting our prejudices stop them? Should we be working more actively to reduce the power of the stigma we have about life after prison?
If you’re working with someone who has been through the criminal justice system, or a relative of someone sent to prison; there are some helpful tools for your practice on our website. If you can’t find what you’re looking for – get in touch and see if we can help!