By Isaac Salima:
When 40-year-old Benito Sam walked out of the high walls of Chichiri Prison after serving a nine-year jail term for armed robbery, he thought life would not be tough anymore.
A nostalgic feeling weighing down on him, he embraced his relatives, some of whom he had missed for close to a decade.
The experience in the correctional facility had sufficiently reformed him. He had even learned to make jewels such as rings and earrings.
“I was optimistic that the skills I had acquired would ease my life outside prison but I was sadly mistaken,” Sam recounts despairingly.
Without capital, he cannot start his own business right away. Thus, he has been hopping from one office to another in search of employment.
Companies are not willing to take in someone with a criminal record.
“I had a feeling that acquiring the vocational skills would eventually benefit me after I finish serving my prison sentence,” Sam says.
He reckons that other former prisoners are failing to get employed by companies that frown at their criminal records.
They cannot even access loans from financial institutions. Employment is the only way they can earnestly put their skills to use, as a starting point.
Malawi Prison Service (MPS) spokesperson Chimwemwe Shaba rues the challenges that ex-prisoners face when it comes to getting employment opportunities.
“We have programmes to ensure prisoners learn skills so that they can become economically independent when they get released.
“Apart from that, the core aim of prisons is to reform inmates; so, if companies are not comfortable hiring ex-convicts, it defeats the whole purpose of such initiatives,” Shaba says.
He is worried that people who get ignored by society after being released from prison tend to reoffend because they consider themselves as outcasts.
“Someone who has served his or her prison sentence should essentially be trusted. Condemning them does not help matters. They become habitual offenders,” Shaba says.
So far, thousands of prisoners have been trained in skills carpentry, tailoring and welding and fabrication.
Other rehabilitation programmes include formal and informal education, agriculture skills and spiritual reform.
Several institutions and governments are supporting the interventions to ensure prisoners leave the correctional facilities equipped to face the world.
Last year the Germany Government in conjunction with the Centre for Human Rights, Education, Advice and Assistance (Chreaa) launched the Adult Learning and Education in Prisons Programme in Zomba.
Speaking during the launch, MPS Commissioner Responsible for administration, Dezio Makumba, said such programmes are supposed to change the lives of prisoners after they serve time.
President of Employers Consultative Association of Malawi, George Khaki, said, when recruiting, employers always go for people who are trustworthy.
“For instance, banks cannot hire someone whose track record is questionable. They will always go for someone who is trustworthy because the work involves someone with highest levels of integrity.
“So in this case, it is difficult to prove whether ex-convicts have really reformed because of lack of systems to follow them up,” Khaki said.
Chreaa Executive Director Victor Mhango insists such tendencies are discriminatory.
“An offender is sent to prison to be reformed. We do not show them love if we ignore them after they serve their sentences.
“As a result, they feel that their best place is the prison. They then engage in criminal activities because we have not accepted them,” Mhango said.
He wonders why someone’s previous behaviour should prevent them from enjoying precepts of equality when a sentence should offset the offence.
In its publication, a Forensic Psychology Research Group from the University of Australia found that released prisoners were less than half as likely to re-offend if they were helped to find and keep a job.