One of the most disturbing trends we watch in frustration daily is the ever growing number of young men in handcuffs being escorted to law courts across this island and more often than not to Her Majesty’s Prison Dodds.
It is little wonder therefore that our main prison is almost filled to capacity, with Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite reporting just this week that the St Philip penal facility now has a population of about 950 inmates, 900 of whom are said to be relatively young males.
The troubling disclosure came as Mr Brathwaite piloted the second reading of The Criminal Records (Rehabilitation of Offenders) (Amendment) Bill, 2017, which seeks to have the criminal offences of a convict expunged in a shorter period of time to give him/her a chance to find employment.
In our small society we are often quick to write off ex-convicts. We easily accept that once a convict, always a convict, even though that need not be the case.
Therefore, the very suggestion that a criminal offender should be given a second chance quickly sparks controversy.
However, there is a compulsion for us to, at the very least, have a rational discourse on the issue, if only for the simple fact that most offenders will wind back up in the very communities from whence they came, living just a stone’s throw from one or more of us.
In making his contribution to the parliamentary debate this week, the Attorney General also revealed that Barbados has a recidivism rate of between 60 to 65 per cent, which means that Dodds is really a revolving door for most.
This is worrying to say the least, given that prison was never intended to be an incubator for criminals, but rather a facility where offenders while serving out their time for their wrongdoing, can be rehabilitated and hopefully turn over a new leaf by the time they are released back into society.
However, it is clear that Barbados has much work to do in this regard, based on the very telling report produced by the Criminal Justice Research and Planning Unit in 2015, entitled, Barriers to Reintegration.
That report has identified a lack housing, a drug habit and the failure to secure employment among a number of factors resulting in offenders returning to their old ways and eventually back to Dodds.
Data revealed by Brathwaite also showed that “84 per cent of employers said they would not employ someone who had a criminal record and 45 per cent of them said they actually required a Police Certificate as a prerequisite for employment”.
Understandably, hiring a former prison inmate can be risky business and companies have a right to protect their interests.
However, there are other critical issues to be considered:
An offender who has paid his/her dues only to be rejected by society serves no one any good. No acceptance in his/her neighbourhood means alienation, which can lead to anger and lawlessness.
Similarly, no job means no income to satisfy basic needs and ultimately that some will fall back on the wrong track, end back up in jail and so the cycle continues.
In circumstances such as these, a second chance can make the world of difference between turning over a new page or wreaking further havoc on society. It may even be seen by the offenders as an opportunity for them to redeem themselves in the eyes of society.
With that said, it must be acknowledged that some ex-prisoners have indeed squandered their second chances much to the disappointment of those who would have shown faith in their rehabilitation and would have gone all out to secure their reintegration and acceptance.
However, we can’t allow those who are bent on wrongdoing to prevent us from opening a door for others who genuinely desire a fresh start.
This call is not for the public to show sympathy to criminals, for it is only fair that if you do the crime, you should do the time.
But, as a people, we have to be fair and forgiving and ultimately, if there is to be change in mindset, the penal system must do more to persuade businesses and communities to give ex-convicts a second chance.
Both groups are likely to soften their stance if they can be sure that serious rehabilitation takes place behinds prison walls.
And while we don’t advocate that offenders receive a red carpet welcome and an all expenses paid vacation at the Dodds, every effort should be made while they are there to help them make better choices and to equip them with the skills they will need to make an honest contribution to society.
We all have marveled at the artwork, furniture and other items produced by inmates. This creativity certainty needs to be harnessed while the old thinking of locking up offenders and throwing away the key needs to be banished for good.
At the moment, the cost of maintaining Dodds is way too high, and while there can be no blind attempts to offer second chances, we should at least give the rehabilitated an opportunity to prove their worth.