November 05 2014 | Ketija Riteniece
Life doesn’t stop after prison

Imprisonment is a time spent between other criminals and separated from a society. The longer it is, the harder it is to start over a new life after the release.

Life doesn’t stop after prison

Imprisonment is a time spent between other criminals and separated from a society. The longer it is, the harder it is to start over a new life after the release.

The longer it is, the harder it is to start over a new life after the release. That is a lesson new democracies and their societies are slowly learning. Two stories from Baltics about two young ex-prisoners show how re-socialization opportunities for prisoners such as work, school and support groups have changed them during their sentencing. Yet they still think it’s better to hide their past in order to re-socialize.

Hopes to be better

“You just ask me questions,” Janis, a young man in his early twenties from Riga, Latvia, is nervous before the interview. He lights a cigarette and waits for his coffee to cool in a small cabin where he and his co-workers can spend lunch breaks or change their clothes after a day spent working in a construction company. We are alone in the cabin and it’s safe to talk here – his colleagues do not know the story Janis is going to tell. It’s better this way: Janis believes that their positive attitude towards him would change radically if they knew he is an ex-prisoner. “How to say… Article 125, part 3” being asked the usual “what-for” he names parts from criminal law that provides punishment by imprisonment for causing grievous bodily harm with intent in an organised group. Janis does not go into details about this crime, he only says that he had to teach a lesson to a guy who mistreated his sister.

But there were many lessons he had to learn himself, Janis admits. “You mean the first time he was jailed? He was seventeen,” Janis’s sister Liene reveals more detailed story of her brother’s past in prison. “There were seven or even more of them. Of course, they were drunk and under drugs and that was it. They beat up one guy. He slept in coma one and a half months and then died. Janis got suspended sentence for three years. In that time he mustn’t have broken the law. But he did.” The crime that finally got him behind bars for 3 years and three months was thievery. Liene says it was a hard moment for the whole family when Janis (20 years old at the time) was jailed, but she says she knew that her brother will end up in jail sooner or later with a kind of lifestyle he was leading. “Maybe that was a life lesson that changed him.”

There were a lot of activities

“I don’t want to return,” says Janis who does not speak much about his emotions. He sees education as the most valuable thing gained during his imprisonment. Janis left school at the age of 14. The construction business bubble was growing at the time and the boy started to work as a builder with no contract – typically for so called fat years. Becoming a professional builder is now his dream. Possibility to study during imprisonment let him take a few steps towards this dream – starting with a level of a 5th-grader, he is now a qualified electrician. “I was a lazy young fool, to be honest,” he comments his low education at that time. Janis also took the opportunity to work during imprisonment. “We changed the canteen roof, renovated living areas, and built the showers. One could also work as a cook, cleaner, builder, electrician or welder. There were different jobs.” Janis loves basketball and other sports which he also did in prison. “There is enough time,” he adds. Enough time for thought as well. “I thought a lot about how I’m going to live when I come out. Should I continue my previous lifestyle or not.” His work, studies and a good behaviour let Janis get back to freedom three months earlier. Janis was lucky that his father who works in construction for more than 10 years got him a job right after his release. Despite that, he feels the hardship of returning in a society. “Those are two unlike worlds. It’s a different feeling and even a way of thinking. It’s a challenge to live in freedom now where one has to think how to earn, how to feed a family. In prison one is accommodated and fed.” In Latvia, statistics show that 70 in 100 people return to jail in a year after their release. Janis can see that between his friends, or rather – former friends, of whom several are currently imprisoned for thievery. “They just don’t want to change,” Janis thinks. Yet a pre-crisis experience of the halfway houses system in Latvia shows that only 3 % of those who resided there return to jail. Unfortunately, these places for social integration were closed in 2008, leaving only one from nine open.

Somewhere behind everything

Juste from Vilnius, Lithuania, has a similar story. Juste is in her late twenties, but looks younger – wearing colourful tights and extraordinary robot-earrings, doubtfully anyone could tell this lively girl used to be a drug addict who’s spent four years in jail for drug dealing. Juste is clean for eight years now, which is close to ten. Ten is a meaningful number for her. She remembers the very first meeting for anonymous drug addicts soon after her imprisonment. One of the group leader revealed he’s been clean for ten years and now is expecting a baby with his wife. “For me it seemed amazing! Wow, ten years!” she recalls her admiration contrasting the anger she felt when she was practically forced to attend the group“I told them I don’t have to go because I don’t have drug problems anymore. I had been clean for one and a half year during detention and while waiting for the verdict.”

Fearing that the support group consists of fanatically religious people at first, Juste now admits it was her start to a new life. She also no longer feels anger for being imprisoned. Before the fateful day when police came to her house and found two grams of heroin, Juste thought she is leading an independent adult-like life, able to support herself with no need for parenting or education. She thought she is free. But in retrospective she sees those days more clearly and they are far from what could be called freedom. “I woke up, took a dose, and went to meet a client. Then another dose. Meeting, dose, meeting, dose. I didn’t see anything else in my life.” It was the support group in prison that made her realize this emptiness. “I was 21 years old. My friends started studies in universities, some started to live in their own families. But I had nothing.” She realized it’s time to start to learn how to do something in her life, how to work and study. “I felt like a child learning everything from a beginning.” Juste worked in sewing and as a fruit packerand also finished high school. Similar to Janis, because of working and studying she got an early release – 4 years instead of 8.

Treated as normal

She agrees that living among other law breakers can have an adverse effect, yet it made Juste’s desire to get out and never return even stronger. “I saw young women with no teeth. Women who would spend all day in bed watching Russian TV series. Once I was reading a book and a girl came up to me asking why am I reading. I find it interesting, I replied. She said: interesting to read a book? You are out of your mind.”

Juste found understanding and joy in a school for prisoners. “Teachers accepted me and treated me like a normal girl. We had really nice conversations. I got so much from them, they helped me. School was like another world in the prison walls.” Juste received her high school diploma at the age of 25.

After the release Juste stopped attending anonymous drug addicts group, because she felt like taking control over her life. But for more than a year she suffered depression and couldn’t manage relationships with other people. She tried to look for a job.

“When I went to the unemployment agency, I had to tell them I’m an ex prisoner because I also needed a paper for probation service. A staff lady looked up me and said – so you want to work? There are no jobs for you because you are from prison.” Juste looked up for vacancies herself. In job interviews she lied about the four empty years on her CV, she said she spent them in UK and Italy. Juste found a job in a clothing store and later in at an optometrists. Now she thinks about studying, but cannot decide – she likes history, writing, and she would alsolike to study English or Italian. Despite the low point right after her release, she believes that imprisonment was the beginning of her uplift. “If I wouldn’t have been going to the group there, I’d definitely have taken a dose to get away from my bad feelings as soon as I could. But I was so afraid to do that.”