IN THE CANDID CORNER: Of ex-convicts and convictions
Recently I heard a news item on one of our radio stations. It carried remarks by Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite. Essentially, he was calling on employers in Barbados to give ex-convicts a second chance by offering them employment.
For the most part it was a good call, but I took issue with an aspect of the remarks in which the Attorney General is reported to have said or implied that our failure to employ ex-convicts might very well mean that they have no option but to return to the activity or behaviour which got them in trouble in the first place.
The current Attorney General has been a strong proponent of rehabilitation and for this he must be lauded. When I was a boy growing up in rural Barbados, one heard of “Dodds boys” and the notion of “once a criminal, always a criminal” was rife. On the other hand, what was also very strong was the need to avoid a life of crime and thereby avoid having to grapple with the consequences of such a life. This was drilled into our heads both at school and at home.
I grew up at a time when rumours of “a man in the canes” were popular. When the crop season came, you feared walking in certain areas alone because “there was a man in the canes”. I found it interesting that it was never “a woman in the canes”. My siblings and I never saw one but there was always this morbid fear of “the man in the canes”. The legendary Buddy Brathwaite was not so much “a man in the canes”; he was more “a man in the gully”.
I also grew up at a time when homicides were not that frequent. Twenty-four murders in one year is high compared with when I was growing up. They were so infrequent that when one occurred, it sent shockwaves both through the immediate community and the country. I recall names like “Aircon” and “Strainsaga”. These were supposed to be men who were known to have committed serious criminal acts. Of course, there was also “the heartman” and all that, but that is another story.
Communities the world over grapple continually with criminal elements. Crime hangs above every society like a cloud that not only threatens, but often bursts.
In recent times, Barbados has had some gruesome murders. While many of them have occurred in the context of domestic violence, the drug culture has brought with it new elements of crime that speak to man’s inhumanity to man. We all recall a few years ago when the dismembered body of a drug dealer went viral. Photographs were plastered across cyberspace and the families of the victim were given a double dose of pain and trauma as they watched and grappled with the effects.
The Attorney General’s call for greater tolerance and for employers to give ex-convicts a second chance must be placed in its correct context. An ex-convict who was given a second chance by the late Prime Minister David Thompson was full of praise for the gesture that changed his life and kept him out of a life of crime.
Sitting beside the Attorney General at a funeral service at Coral Ridge Memorial Gardens recently, I challenged him that his comments might have come over as if to suggest he wanted to bully employers into finding work for people who fell into crime, did their time and must now be given a clean “bill of health” by being embraced by the society whose responsibility it is to find work for them. This mendicancy mindset among ex-convicts – that society must find work for them – is probably a failure of rehabilitation.
It is my contention that while I support the Attorney General, there is a need for a comprehensive approach to rehabilitation that will see prisoners being prepared for re-integration into society on the premise that they can create their own employment opportunities rather than depending on others to find work for them. Yes, they have served their time, their slate is now clean, they have paid the price, but they cannot be forced on would-be employers. On the other hand, they cannot be discriminated against because they went to prison.
In conclusion, no ex-convict who has been well rehabilitated should feel he has no option but to return to a life of crime. I however support the Attorney General in principle in his call for greater tolerance for them.
• Matthew Farley is a secondary school principal, chairman of the National Forum on Education, and a social commentator.