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From Outlaw to Citizen

From Outlaw to Citizen

A prisoner coming out of jail and making a successful transition over time towards becoming law-abiding citizen must overcome major difficulties. Matthew, a long-term prisoner, said he had not been prepared for the shock of going back to civilian life. Like Rip Van Winkle, he found the world outside prison had changed beyond recognition. He had not used Eftpos, credit cards, cell phones or computers and felt incompetent to deal with everyday situations, such as getting onto a bus going in the right direction. He had had little practice in turning off lights and his gas stove. As with all the respondents in this study, he was well aware of the intense public distrust of offenders. Ironically, however, offenders are highly dependent on public tolerance and acceptance if they are to desist from re-offending.

Dr Anne Opie, an independent researcher and former social worker, interviewed recently released ex-prisoners over a period of time about their experiences of the challenges associated with attempting to move back into to civilian life. Her findings are published by Dunmore Publishing in From Outlaw to Citizen: Making the Transition from Prison in New Zealand.

“There are myriad and shocking historical and present failures in our prison systems to help those leaving prison to resettle into communities and move away from re-offending.” says Anne Opie.

More than half of the respondents were released into a city they had never lived in before. Few had either family or friends on whom they could rely. Nearly all left prison in the clothes in which they had been admitted, with one saying he left prison during the winter wearing jeans, a tee-shirt and thongs. Others said their clothes had barely fitted them. Prisoners are meant to organize their accommodation prior to their release. This was typically very difficult to do and three left prison without having a place to live. Unsurprisingly, several considered that returning to prison might be an easier option that trying to manage civilian life, their experiences replicating findings in recent international literature about how hard it is for released prisoners to cope with the stresses of release and, in the process avoid re-offending.

Anne Opie’s research showed that the respondents spoke very highly of the non governmental organizations (NGOs) who worked with and supported them after their release. They helped them find accommodation manage finances and, in some instances, employment, because the staff had the necessary detailed knowledge of their community and of people with connections to help released prisoners. Respondents described how staff and volunteers in these agencies treated them as human beings, offering hope and help in planning and beginning to work towards a constructive future.

In contrast, the respondents were highly critical of the Community Probation Service’s (CPS) very restricted role. Staff asked only about respondents’ compliance with their conditions of parole. They were not mandated to ask about and help offenders with their very real everyday problems. Nor were they interested in the positive ways in which respondents were attempting to re-build their lives and cease to re-offend.

Anne Opie said, “This study indicates that Corrections and the CPS have been operating on the basis of a very limited account of what helps to assist offenders move towards being able to live more constructive lives. There are many social factors that contribute to people re-offending. Corrections has apparently been unaware of significant initiatives in other countries focused on what helps people desist from re-offending and begin to contribute, as were some respondents, to the society to which they belong.”


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