Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Once a convict, always a convict?

Source Type: Campaign & Documentary

Suppose you own a listed company. One day an interviewee walks up to you and introduce himself as an ex-convict. What is the immediate image of him that you form in your mind? Clearly, each of us holds different perceptions of the people around us, regardless of whether we know them personally or not. Unfortunately, most of the derived assessment about others contains misinformation that distorts the truth behind them. What if the ex-convict had already realized his mistakes eons ago, but was still unable to be accepted for a job due to his past? This is an unfair treatment to them, and it is due to the societies’ deep-rooted perception of an ex-offender.

“Help unlock the second prison” as the slogan of the Yellow Ribbon Campaign goes. “Every year 11,000 ex-offenders are released from prison, yet many continue to carry the label that is our prejudice. Help them put their past behind them.”

To view their website, check out this link:

Since selection is a critical aspect of perception that influences our communication and behavior, it is often the culprit of perceptual errors. Our mistake of over-prioritizing the most noticeable, but the unimportant information, may lead us to the pathway of oversimplification. We only select the fact about their past, but overlooked the possibility of a change in their behavior as well as their attitude in the present. No wonder we see the appearance of the word “second prison”, where they are unable to be freed from our prejudice.

Concurrently, as we try to organize the myriad of information around us, we subconsciously rely on prototype as a convenient template for us to categorize groups of people. Hence, we often associate people with tattoo to have connections with the underworld and that “masterpiece” on their body as a logo of their gang tribe. However, using this method to draw conclusions will cause us to have a tendency to ignore individual details that could easily lead us to stereotyped responses that birds of the feather flock together.

What if that piece of tattoo was not totally intended by them but was forced by the wrong company they mixed with while they were at their adolescent stage? This brings us to the next question of how we attach meaning to what we select and organize information- interpretation. Are we making a dispositional attribution to the underlying cause of their behavior, and assume that they are born with evil intentions thus crafting tattoo and committing crimes?

Here’s a real life example from a television documentary, Tuesday Report, on 9Sep08, telecasting the life of Mr Paul Ang Chiong Kiet. He was an ex-offender who has an extraordinary childhood where fighting was his favorite past-time. As years goes by, he took up drugs and was put behind the bars. While he was in jail, he found out that his mother was diagnosed with cancer. He prayed to God to allow him to have a chance to take good care for his mum for at most 3 months after his release. Indeed, his prayer request came true and his mum pass away after 3 months. He was agonized, but was determined to quit his habit, and he did it. Fortunately, when he wanted to enroll into Chin Lian Bible college to become a pastor, his dean did not look down on but accepted him. Mr Paul was filled with gratefulness towards his dean who acted differently to the rest, and was willing to remove the label of prejudice that the society holds. Today, Pastor Paul shares with the other ex-offenders about his life and makes a difference to their life by encouraging them to walk out of their past.

In retrospect, if not for the dean, he will not have this day. The dean’s mental process of selection, organization and interpretation of ex-offenders like Mr Paul was neither distorted, influenced nor colored by the common societal views.

Are we conveniently holding the thought that “Once a convict, always a convict”? Should we pause for a moment to reflect on our own process of perception?


-belinda-* said...

The issue or perceiving ex-offenders with a stereotype boils down to the fact of human nature having innate stereotype views. Just like how one may link a smoker with a gangster or label them as bad people, these examples all reflect human nature of stereotyping. Though it's not true that once a person is convicted, he or she will always be a convict. A probable reason might be that it's hard for a leopard to change its spots. Many companies refuse to accept ex-offenders for the fact that they fear the ex-offenders will be tempted to commit crimes again in their company and cause the company to lose profits or reputation.
However, the truth is, no one is perfect and everyone needs a second chance. Though we, as commoners, may not have committed a mistake severe enough to warrant a sentence, we need second chances in our lives too.
However, social stereotype is hard to eradicate but efforts should be made to give them their second chance.

Kenneth said...

Yes... how we choose to put people in certain lights is a Perception problem. I would say that we need to unlock this second prison.

The way to do it is from the roots. Our perceptions are tainted by our socializing techniques. We SELECT information based on how we have be taught to do so. Basically, since we are SOCIALIZED into BEING, we need to first SOCIALIZE the next generation of people into being more accepting of Ex-offender.

As the label: EX-offender suggests, the offence is past, therefore, the sin is past too. Whether he has repented or not is another story. It is our onus to try him/her out one more time.

Once again, great post. I so very much enjoy reading your excellent posts. This is Communication blogs, most probably at its finest.

silbell said...

personally i think we have to consider this issue from a few situations like how the person had become a convict in the first place, for example taking the circumstances into consideration.
of course we won't say that circumstance can be an excuse for someone's crime but it is then easier for us to change our perception.
though we may not be hostile to them but i would honestly said at times the sense of precaution would pop up while we relate with them.

wendy said...

Hey beattie,I also agree with you on this issue. I wrote a similiar article too :)

Well, stereotypes are just a one-sided opinions of a certain group of people, so the public should just get to know them, before jumping onto conclusions.

Anyway, this is a good entry.

Splikik said...

Stereotypes are unavoidable really. They're there to help people categorize and make sense of this complicated society. Of course the issue of oversimplification happens when one overly depends on stereotyping for understanding people. Which usually happens for first impressions.

It's ironic that the ad's supposed agenda is to encourage society to give convicts a second chance, is guilty of stereotyping too. Associating tattoos with convicts? Being politically correct all the time is an uphill task.

Nonetheless, you've pointed out many interesting points. :)

Simon said...

The challenges ex-convicts (reformed offenders) face in Singapore or around the world for that matter is indeed a daunting one. Challenges posed to them by the very society (us) that they used to live in. As the author had emphasized, the inherent problem lies in the second prison. There must first be a mutual trust established between the two parties as well as a general acceptance and open-mindedness of living and working alongside reformed offenders in the community. However, this is usually easier said than done because the probable solution demands a change in the mindset of the individual and the society at large. For one, society as a whole plays a pivotal role in influencing how the majority of individuals view reformed offenders. This in turn could lead to the development of negative stereotyping within the community.

Going back to the main issue raised by the author on the employing of reformed offenders, I believe that depending on the nature of the job and nature and severity of the crime, they should still be considered as a potential employee provided they have the right credentials. Unfortunately, very often, the reality of the situation is that most professional companies would not hire reformed offenders just based on the fact that they were former convicts and hold criminal records. The justification though debatable, is simple and may sometimes even be valid depending on how one chooses to look at it. During job interviews, there would likely be a large number of well qualified applicants vying for the same position. When it finally comes down to who actually gets the job, the selection process could become very subjective, assuming the shortlisted applicants are equally qualified. If there were two candidates shortlisted and one had a criminal record, the one with the clean record would most probably get the job. The rationale is, why risk hiring someone who may become a liability to the company should he or she return to the ways that got them in jail in the first place?

As an employer, one would also have to make decisions with the company and team in mind. Some companies employ a sort of voting system by consulting the team that the potential employee would be working in, to help decide amongst those shortlisted. This is done to ensure that the employees within the team would be able to communicate and work well with the new person. But for that to happen, one must first be comfortable with the person and thus, it would only be natural to choose the candidate with the clean record as opposed to the one with a criminal record. However, let’s assume that the company hiring now is one of those which participated in the Yellow Ribbon Project and are open to hiring ex-offenders. What could be the concerns then? For example, if the company had a job vacancy in its finance department, and one of the qualified applicants had a criminal history of theft, the employer would most probably not hire this person because, in the event that company funds were found to have been mismanaged or stolen, the candidate in question would most likely be a prime suspect. Whether this decision to not hire can be seen as prudence or prejudice on the employer’s part is again debatable. Ultimately, it really depends on trust on the employers’ part, the nature of the job which the reformed offender chooses to apply for, as well as his/her qualification level.

Moving on to the next issue about giving ex-convicts a second chance, I personally feel that in general, most of them deserve another shot at a normal life and our acceptance. Even if the majority of them may have poor qualifications due to the fact that they never managed to get a proper education as a result of their run-in with the law, I believe that companies willing to hire them should at least give them a job despite it being a low level one. After all, it’s more important for them to be able to earn a decent honest day’s wage and be able to look after themselves and their families. This in turn would hopefully keep most reformed offenders from returning to crime and starting a self-perpetuating cycle which could land them back in jail and cause society to once again lose faith in them.

On a side note, I thought it was worth noting that most people including myself seem to be more inclined to give a second chance to ex-offenders convicted with minor crimes such as theft, as opposed to those prosecuted for serious or violent crimes such as murder. We could be looking at another level of stereotype within a stereotype (ex-convicts), but generally, the latter group of offenders is much more difficult to forgive and accept due to the manner and circumstances of the crimes.

yakking said...

I agree with belinda that much as we would like to be pardoned from our past mistakes, ex-offenders also long for our forgiveness too. Also, like what kenneth mentioned, their offence has already become a history and I feel that we should not be living in the memories of their past.

However, as silbell and simon pointed out, I am also cautious about their change and will inevitably wonder if they would return to their old ways when faced with pressing circumstances.

Here, we see many conflicting views emerging within ourselves as well. On one hand, we empathize with them but on the other hand, we are not as forbearing as much as we would like to be.

bingo said...

Honestly, I think it is human nature to stereotype people, either by the way they dress, or their looks, or otherwise.

If you agree with what I just said, you are already stereotyping the human race.

However, I do agree that the 'second prison' is a pressing problem in our society today. Companies may say that they want to be "better safe than sorry". However, they do not realize that their fear of hiring a bad employee does not surpass the ex-offender's fear of rejection. By keeping our doors locked to the ex-offender would result in the further demoralization of the latter. It might even become a bigger problem for our society. Hence, I think it's important for our society to give ex-offenders a second chance, for them to start life anew, and to make amends, and contribute to our society once again.

june said...

Yes, I agree with bingo that we should give ex-convicts a second chance to contribute to our society. The ex-offenders should also determine to mend their ways of life, without that no one can help them. Stereotyping like what belinda mentioned is inevitable in our society. Hence, to help the ex-offenders to return to our society, job-matching like what Simon mentioned would be helpful.

fen said...

Yes, you are right. We should be giving ex-convicts a second chance. I guess it is time to change our perception of "A leopard ever change its spots."

At the same time, I feel that these ex-convicts have to really prove themselves worthy for forgiveness. The challenge is how are they going to change the perception of the public, and to convey effectively the right message to them.

Licheng said...

Basically, there are many factors here to be considered when we are discussing issues with regards to prejudice against ex-convicts. First and foremost, we have to understand that being convicted does not necessary mean that they are bad, though most of them are. However, in this cruel and realistic society, honestly nobody cares about what is the reason behind one's conviction. Conviction works like a tatoo, forever embedded, forever being noticed.

Secondly, I know it is the most right thing to do to eradicate all prejudices, judgments, criticism, discrimination and scorns on ex convict. However it is easier said than done. Considering such a cosmopolitan as Singapore, if we want to achieve the level where by everybody in the society is able to accept ex-convicts, it would be rather difficult.

Thirdly, stereotype is generally guided by history. Unpleasant things must have happened before for stereotype to arise. If we really want to dismiss such stereotypes, not only we have much to learn, convicts too have their parts to play. Coming back to the main point, it is always easier said than done, but such acts as this discussion certainly demonstrate that impossible is nothing to begin with.

yakking said...

After some readings I found some interesting additional concepts to be applied in my post.

The cause of our bias attitude towards ex-convicts could be due to Intentional Orientation and Static Evaluation where we view people according to labels. Hence, we assess that 'bad guys' will remain as a deviant because they cannot be sentenced to jail for nothing.

So to remedy the situation, we could learn to be Extentionally Orientated where we avoid being influenced by labels and focus solely on the actual person whom we are interacting with.

In this case, we should assess the new job applicant as an interviewee who is looking for a placement just like any ordinary man.

wudi_john said...

I'm sure we all know that not all convicts are bad in nature, thus we really should not discriminate them.

Who knows if they are being framed? This may sound unrealistic, but these people who frame others, may be more cruel than those in dramas.

However, we also should not forget that there are people who do not change even after being cane several times.

After all, we are all humans. Its just that we did not make mistakes till the extent that we need to be convicted.

Qiqi said...

About this issue, it is very hard for one to say.
For me, once a convict may not always be a convict. They had already paid a price for what they had done and if they really want to change over a new leaf, why shouldn't they be given a chance?
I do agree that some people never change and they will make the same old mistake over and again. However, I do believe that there are still people who want to change and regretted what they had done, and now they want a chance for them to change and for others to accept them.
Noone is perfect, we do make mistakes and we do want the person that we had hurt to forgive us and give us another chance. It is just that convict had made a mistake which is greater than the mistake that we had made. So convict will need to try harder to earn others' trust.
Overall, I believe that a "ex-"convict may not always be convict as long as he sets his mind on wanting to change and willing to work harder.

yakking said...

Yes, i do agree with you all when you say that we should give ex-convicts a 2nd chance and that is what my post is about.

However, like some of you mentioned, we still have to be careful when employing them. Some may really have turned over a new leaf. However, there may be some who are like leopards who never change their spots.

Tammy said...

My brother has spent over half of his life in and out of jail. The first part of his jail time was his way of dealing with his anger and resentment of our father dropping out of the picture when he was 11. Not by way of excuse, but he had no one to relate to but poverty and poor influence. He is now 39 years old and is still in and out of jail.

I was really angry this last time, at first at him, but then at the whole perseption of an ex convict. He is a very kind soul but is a poor judge of character when it comes to steering clear of other convicts once he's out. Now, the law enforcement knows who he is and his lengthy record and they just pick him up and through him back in jail.

He's tried to make a home so many times to simply be thrown back in jail usually on a minor issue but most often a made up offense from the local police. He just starts to get on his feet, he gets a knock on the door by a police officer, and it is taken away from him and he has to start out homeless every time he gets out. It's just so sad and frustrating.

I can understand the local police wanting to protect their community but they don't give ex con's a chance, they see a past record they do not like and they find a way to put him back and jail.

Worst part, he's contracted HIV through a past relationship (or may past addition - he won't tell) and his years are numbered. His mother and I have come to terms that maybe he will never get a chance to live his own life.

My last advice to him was to go to a new town and stay away from anyone on the street. His only hope is to hide. That's a hard way to live when all we want in life is to belong.

Anonymous said...

I believe only people who are bolder and more daring have skin arts, or tattoos. Those are the people who are more liberal in their thinkings, and prehapes grow up in a much more different environment than most of us. Would you get one if you live in a rich family with nothing to worry about everyday and is loved.? I seriously don't think so unless your family or friends influence you to do so.

Why will you get a tattoo? Ain't it because you want to show other you are different, to get more attention? Peer presure? And why is tattoos associated with convicts? Ain't it because convicts hold the same trails a person with tattoos have? Daring, 'bravery', and maybe peer presure in the wrong way. The fact that they are different.