In society worldwide, it is generally accepted that convicts serve their prison sentences as punishment for breaking the law. Once the convicts are released from prison, their punishment is legally considered complete and they are then free to return to living a normal life among the community. However, can we be so sure that convicts suffer no repercussions once they are released back into the community? Are they still being punished even after having served their sentences in prison?
Most ex-convicts will agree that they are still being punished in some way even if they have been out of prison for years. In the first few years after release, life can be very difficult. Ex-convicts may find that they cannot get any employer to take them in, and on top of their employment challenges, they may also be shunned by their friends and family. Some may be required to find their own shelter and provide for themselves, which can be extremely tough when they are already struggling to get back on their feet. Even when an ex-convict has surpassed the initial years of trials, they may continually suffer from the permanent criminal record marked on their documents. Imagine having your future defined by a mistake you made in the past, limiting the paths available to you for the rest of your life, and there would be no way you could ever remove the black mark to your name. Is that not a lifelong punishment even long after coming out of prison?
For one, convicts are punished by their criminal records when looking for a job. Most employers require job applicants to declare their criminal records before even interviewing them, and it goes without saying that those without criminal records are usually more desirable especially if the job position requires a high level of trust, such as managing a company’s financials or having access to sensitive data. It is also not easy for a company to simply decide that they wish to hire ex-convicts and give them a chance, as it only makes sense not to entrust someone who has previously shown that they were capable of breaking a law with too much responsibility until they have proven their trust. As such, ex-convicts are usually stuck with mundane jobs even if they have high qualifications, and they often find themselves having to work their way up the corporate ladder from scratch. This may be less of a blow to someone who is young and had little experience in the working world before being incarcerated – and even then, already having a criminal record when just starting work would likely impede one’s ability to advance in the corporate world. However, the greatest blow comes to someone who was already in a high corporate position before their criminal record. The greatest punishment may be that this person’s previous years of expertise have all gone to waste, and they may never recover a salary or a position as high as their previous one.
Convicts are also punished by their community, especially if they are labelled as sex offenders. In some parts of the United States, there are strict rules regarding where sex offenders are allowed to stay, even after their release. For instance, in Utah, sex offenders are required to go through a treatment program in order for parole – but there are usually too few spots in the program, resulting in many sex offenders remaining in prison long after their sentence, so that they can wait for an open spot. In Illinois, the parole requirements are strict, banning the use of computers, smartphones or the presence of children around at any time, which are requirements many families have difficulty accommodating. In New York City, sex offenders are required to live outside of 1,000-foot zones encircling schools, which basically means the entire urban area. As such, many sex offenders in the United States have nowhere to go after their release, except back to their cell in prison for an indefinite period of time.
Even if convicts are not sex offenders, they typically still have trouble assimilating back into society. While some convicts are welcomed back by their friends and family, others may not be so fortunate. They could be disowned, thrown out of the house or may have spent too long in prison that they have nobody in the community outside. People may find it difficult to trust ex-convicts, who themselves could suffer from self-esteem issues. For example, when renting a place to stay, applicants usually have to declare if they have ever been convicted of a felony. Ex-convicts are barred from private housing and usually have to live in low-income public housing, where drugs and gang violence are rampant. These environments are not conducive and can easily turn a person back to crime, even if they had made their mind up to turn over a new leaf. Additionally, since the mark of “convicted felon” stays for a lifetime, former prisoners may have trouble ever finding a good place to stay, let alone settling back into familial relationships or getting together with someone.
Lastly, convicts are also punished through the psychological changes they are subject to when entering prison. Almost nobody comes out of prison unchanged after having served their time. Life in prison can seem very bleak and boring, without purpose, free will or dignity. Convicts have nowhere to call their own, no choice in what they do, what they eat or where they go. They live in constant fear of infringing any rules and having their sentence extended. They are separated from family and friends, having to go for months, years or even decades without experiencing a kind word or a gentle touch. With the increased sentence length nowadays, convicts learn to adapt when thrown into a cold environment, resulting in inevitable psychological changes once they emerge from confinement and return to the community. It used to be believed that one’s personality remains mostly the same throughout adulthood, but recent studies are beginning to suggest that one’s experience in prison almost always has an impact on their personality in an attempt to adapt to the harsh environment. Most ex-convicts agree that after spending long years in prison, “you ain’t the same”. According to a qualitative study conducted by psychologist Marieke Liema and criminologist Maarten Kunst, 25 former prisoners who had been released from their lifetime sentences stated that they had developed “institutionalized personality traits”, including difficulty trusting others, impeded decision making and difficulty engaging in relationships, as a result of long years spent in prison.
From these three areas of punishment even post-release from prison, it would be difficult to argue that convicts’ punishment ends with their prison sentence. Even if an ex-convict has no difficulty in returning to their previous job and finding a place in society, they have undoubtedly gone through some mental and emotional changes while in prison that will affect them for a lifetime.
May 08, 2020