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JM | May 13, 2022

‘What about second chances?’: Gullotta rips Government over systemic ex-convict discrimination

Gavin Riley

Gavin Riley / Our Today

administrator
Carla Gullotta, executive director of human rights group Stand Up for Jamaica (SUFJ).

Having worked extensively in the Jamaican penal system, human rights and prison advocate, Carla Gullotta, is taking the Government to task for spending millions on rehabilitating inmates only to ‘lead the line’ in discriminating against them. 

The executive director of the Stand Up for Jamaica (SUFJ) lobby, is adamant that if the country is really serious about addressing the scourge of crime and violence, then Government entities, corporate companies and citizens should stop holding reformed inmates’ pasts over their heads, as it only pushes ex-convicts back to criminality. 

Gullotta, in an interview with Our Today on Wednesday (May 11), bemoaned a ‘societal zero-tolerance policy’ she likened to a flood towards ex-convicts, as in some extreme cases it persists for years even after inmates undergo the rehabilitation process. 

“The consequence of rehabilitation is that you send out people who now have subjects, HEART diplomas and a better understanding about who they are and how they should behave—but rehabilitation goes hand-in-hand with reintegration. Rehabilitation remains useless if no one allows them to be gainfully employed. How can they stay honest?” she began.

“It is very difficult and our office is flooded. When people are leaving the [penal] institutions, very often they come to us and ask for help to find a job and we have a whole folder of names,” the SUFJ director told Our Today.

Gullotta said that the millions spent in Department of Correctional Services (DCS) rehabilitative programmes would have amounted to nothing if life remains the same for ex-convicts. 

This is particularly worrying as she pointed to data from the DCS suggesting that over a quarter, or roughly 28 per cent, of the general inmate population re-offends and returns to prison. On the other side of the spectrum, however, among those who underwent rehabilitation, the recidivism rate is encouragingly low at “1-out-of-100”.

And while Stand Up for Jamaica tries to assist in securing jobs for ex-convicts where it can, the organisation fails to meet the high demand for decent work.

“In two, three situations, we find places to send them but the [frequency] is around 1-out-of-100. I really want to launch a campaign on reintegration, otherwise, all the efforts we do through rehabilitation do no help. [Government] spends a bag of money on lessons, training and computers—all those costs are an investment for those going back to society to become productive people,” she explained.

Starting with the DCS itself, Gullotta lamented its zero-tolerance policy with respect to former inmates and correctional officer recruitment, as the department “should be the first one to recognise whether someone has been fully rehabilitated”.

As a common rule across many Government agencies and departments, this ex-convict stigma, once rooted in security concerns, now stands a blanket statement and a slap in the face to the many reformed inmates who have sworn to themselves and the State they will change for the better. 

In September 2021, 12 Richmond Farm inmates received skills training in basic carpentry and masonry to be fully certified to work in general construction on their release from incarceration. (Photo: Facebook @MNSgovjm)

Gullotta also recalled the April 19 news report of an ex-convict working in the Supreme Court as an orderly being fired from his job after the judge familiar with his case recognised him. 

Not diminishing the security risks associated in the Supreme Court context, she still maintained, “That person got a job, a salary that could pay his rent and support his family. It’s gone now. That person is in the middle of the road, again.” 

The Italian-Jamaican advocate is planning, in the coming weeks, a panel discussion to “reason” with both public and private sector leaders in arriving at a consensus on societal reintegration for ex-inmates.

“If the State is the first one to discriminate and keep stigma on former inmates forever, it is very difficult to [want more] open doors in the private sector, civil society. I want to reason with everybody and try to make some changes in our culture,” argued Gullotta.

“A second chance should be opportunity for them not to go back to crime. The second chance is also, to me, a right because if someone paid for what he or she did wrong, you cannot stigmatise them for life,” she added. 

Companies were not left out of Gullotta’s criticisms, as she slammed corporate entities that would initially work with former convicts but fire them after learning of their criminal history, despite their admirable performance on the job. 

“The data is very discouraging. We have a striking case of a woman who came to the prison illiterate. She was serving a short sentence but was determined and left with five subjects and a diploma from HEART. She got a job in a call centre and when the pandemic started, she was part of half of the staff they let go. But she was called back two weeks after. She got a better position but they were asking for a police record, which she provided. When they saw the police record, they sent her back home the following day. By the way, it’s not mandatory to send someone home if the police record is showing you went to prison but a lot of employers do it,” Gullotta told Our Today.

“If we want to fight crime, we have to be realistic. You cannot fight crime if you teach them, train them and then keep them out of a job. After six, seven months, the only thing [many] can do is go back where they came from,” she remarked.

The SUFJ executive director further recommended screening be an integral part of the ‘re-socialisation effort’ as fewer bad instances will greatly encourage others to follow suit. 

“First of all, we need to screen and assess people and know that they have been rehabilitated. Secondly, introduce probation; give them a job for six months and after that, there would be a double evaluation of your capability and how you behaved,” the advocate mused.

“So only after you verify the probation time, do you decide that person is entitled to a permanent job; that is the idea we are launching now. I am preparing to open some dialogue with civil society [and] private sector but especially with the Government because as far as it stands, the Government is not allowing any ex-inmate to work for its agencies,” Gullotta added.

Gullotta told Our Today that her work in correctional institutions demonstrates how difficult the national security portfolio is, however, it is not lost on the inmates who take part in rehabilitation that a level of atonement is needed.

“Detention time is something needed to build around an alternative to criminal life; if we don’t, we have 4,000 people who have done something wrong and come out of prison to re-offend. I think, under the climate of violence and crime that we suffer from in Jamaica, [Stand Up for Jamaica] works on a target group of low-risk offenders to make a difference,” she said.

The idea is to create a path for prisoners to reintegrate into society especially when these inmates leave the prisons and go back home, however, that is made all the more challenging with high demand and limited spaces.

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