The Lighthouse for Recovery Ministries - A Beacon of Light for the Soul in Need!
What the Offender Brings To the Process
Each ex-offender is a unique individual; yet as a group, ex-offenders tend to bring the following common characteristics or attitudes to the process of vocational rehabilitation:
  • Offenders face feelings of failure and hopelessness. Ex-offenders tend to have a long history of failure behind them and may feel that there is little they can do to change their lives. They may have failed at school, at relationships, and at crime, and may have little faith that they will find a job or that employment will make a difference in their lives.
  • Offenders often feel alienated from mainstream institutions. Offenders' experiences with school, health care facilities, welfare and child welfare offices, lawyers, police, and courts have been primarily negative. Their roles while involved with these institutions tend to be those of supplicant or "wrongdoer." Most often, they are told--rather than asked--what their needs are and how those needs will be met. With overwhelming caseloads, human service workers are often too pressed for time to listen to offenders or answer questions. Offenders may perceive this as a lack of respect. As they enter substance abuse treatment and vocational rehabilitation, ex-offenders might expect to face more of the same: requirements laid down by overworked people who believe they know best and who do not care whether the "help" they are offering meets clients' real needs or concerns. Offenders often expect to be treated with contempt and hostility; their sensitivity to the attitudes of others can make them seem "touchy" to counselors.
  • Offenders learn to be cynical and to manipulate the system. From the perspective of an ex-offender, the most sensible way to deal with people assigned to provide "help" he may not want or believe he needs may be to find and exploit the system's weaknesses. The objective is to avoid compliance with burdensome requirements but retain whatever benefits the system offers. Often, in the offender's experience, passive resistance works because the system does not have the capacity to follow through and enforce rules with sanctions.
  • As a group, offenders tend to be less educated, less skilled, and less mature than the general population. Those who spent their youth abusing substances probably did poorly in school and may never have had the opportunity to learn work-related skills or to mature.
  • Some studies have shown that offenders tend to have higher rates of attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD) and other learning disabilities than the general population (Eyestone and Howell, 1994; Mannuzza et al., 1989; U.S. Department of Justice, 1998). Offenders may have had considerable difficulty in school because of problems with concentration, comprehension, ability to plan, and ability to sustain effort. When these problems are not addressed in school, they lead to further skill deficits.
Offenders who have served time face additional barriers, and the more time someone has served, the more serious are the barriers to employment. The following points can help the substance abuse treatment counselor better understand the experience that ex-offenders may have had in prison.
  • Offenders' educational, mental, and social problems are not addressed in prison. In many jurisdictions, these services were casualties of the explosive growth in prison population or never were available except at a minimal level.
  • Incarceration widens the educational and social gap. Incarceration leads to "disculturation"--that is, inmates lose or "fail to acquire some of the habits currently required in the wider society" (Goffman, 1961). The very nature of an all-encompassing institution like a prison is incompatible with the development of the social skills needed to succeed in society at large. The prison inmate undergoes a total loss of autonomy. Others determine every detail of his life--from where he will live and when he wakes up in the morning, to what he will eat and how he will spend his time. Successful adaptation to prison requires accepting this loss of autonomy.
Successful adaptation to prison also requires the individual to accept that the everyday rules of cause and effect and reward and punishment have been suspended. Correction officers can (and do) punish groups of inmates because of the actions of individuals. They can (and do) arbitrarily single out and punish an offender for no reason other than personal dislike. Searches of cells frequently result in destruction of inmate property, including treasured possessions such as photographs and valuables such as typewriters and legal papers. Any privilege earned with good behavior can be revoked at a moment's notice on a trumped-up charge. After years in one facility, an inmate can find herself on a bus to another without notice.
Living in a place where the logic of cause and effect is suspended and justice occurs only by chance can create despair and anger. This, combined with the loss of autonomy, can cause an inmate to stop believing that he is responsible for his life or that anything he does can ever matter. He learns that it is useless to try to control his environment or what happens to him; attempts to plan for the future are almost always futile and frustrating. Yet taking responsibility, making decisions, planning for the future, and following through are precisely the social skills that the released offender needs in order to successfully function in the community, especially in the world of work.
  • Survival in prison and survival outside prison require two vastly different sets of skills. To survive in prison, the offender must get along with other inmates, many of whom are angry and hostile and some of whom are dangerous. Because inmates have no privacy, battle over "turf" is common. Because inmates have no autonomy, power struggles are frequent. Survival in this environment calls on some of the behavior that the offender may have learned before he entered prison (and that may have contributed to being in prison). In some ways, the prison experience reinforces some of the offender's more undesirable social and personal attitudes.
  • After release, offenders may experience emotional shock. Life in prison can be brutal. From the prisoner's perspective, the world outside can take on a rosy glow. The disappointments and difficulties the offender experienced prior to incarceration are often forgotten. As she counts the days to release, her expectations may be high that life on the other side of the wall will be good, if not carefree.
However, reality rarely lives up to such expectations. After release, many ex-offenders are overwhelmed by personal and financial troubles. Some have difficulty adjusting to relationships with spouses and families who have changed and learned to live with greater independence while the ex-offenders were away. Others may return to old relationships that were built on the ex-offender's (or mutual) drug use. Still others, who are struggling to comply with substance abuse treatment and vocational requirements, may face hostility from family and friends who may not like the "new" person the ex-offender is being asked to (or has) become. The ex-offender can experience crushing disappointment at how difficult life is and how much adjustment is required. Having learned early in his life to deal with stress by drinking alcohol and using illicit substances, the ex-offender may be tempted by the pull of the streets and old friends or relatives who still abuse substances.
  • Release from prison can bring culture shock. Offenders leaving prison may find themselves in an unfamiliar world. Simple things such as ordering from a menu can seem alien and anxiety-provoking. For those who have served long terms, the shock can be intensified by the pace of technological change during their incarceration. Offenders may be ashamed of their lack of familiarity with things other people take for granted.
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