Prisoners often come from poorer sections of society and are more likely to have low levels of education, disrupted and chaotic family lives, be unemployed or to live on the streets. Many are dependent on illegal drugs and alcohol, and have no reliable social networks. If the goal of rehabilitation is not given adequate attention by prison authorities, these risk factors will not be addressed and there is a risk of re-offending.
Steady employment is one of the best guarantees against re-offending, but finding and keeping a job is one of the most difficult challenges a former prisoner faces. It is therefore essential that prison systems invest in helping prisoners to gain skills to increase their employability.
Contact with – and support from – family and community are important for successful reintegration. These connections help provide support and structure during the stressful transition back into society. However, relationships are difficult to maintain while serving a prison sentence. Family visits are often restricted, and the prison may be located in remote areas or far from the prisoner’s family and community.
Many prison systems do not help prisoners to prepare for their release. Those that do have only limited programmes or only for offenders who are about to be released. In order to be successful, rehabilitation should begin at the start of the sentence and continue after release.
Parole can act as a strong incentive for prisoners to work towards release but many criminal justice systems do not allow for it. Once back in the community, probation services can encourage prisoners through the prospect of reduced reporting requirements, less stringent conditions and early discharge. However, conditional release must be a structured process, including planning and preparation for re-entering the community, if it is to reduce reoffending.
Stigma attached to imprisonment can seriously damage the chance of rehabilitation and reintegration, in particular the chance of finding employment. States need to promote public understanding of (former) offenders to dispel prejudices and stereotypes. They should recognise and communicate the short- and long-term benefits of rehabilitation and reintegration, including initiatives such as temporary and conditional release schemes.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted in 1966, states that: ‘The penitentiary system shall comprise treatment of prisoners the essential aim of which shall be their reformation and social rehabilitation’. The revised UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners also stress the importance of conditions favourable to reintegration. They state that the duty of society does not end with a prisoner’s release, and call for efficient after-care to be provided to released prisoners. They also highlight the importance of tackling prejudice against prisoners.