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Shunned by their families and unable to access formal rehabilitation programmes, many former prisoners in Macedonia quickly reoffend and end up back where they started
When Dimitar stepped past the heavy iron gate of Macedonia’s Idrizovo jail in July this year, the sun blazed high in the sky. The street was utterly deserted, save for a stray dog dozing under a tree.
“I knew she wouldn’t come,” he says, talking about his wife, Marina. “She told me she would get some money from her mother and would come with the child to meet me at the gate.
“But when I called her the other day, I felt in her voice that she wouldn’t do it.”
Placing his bag of belongings on the ground just a few steps away from the prison gate, Dimitar bends over the fountain to drink. He washes his hands, running them through his hair. Damp locks glint like silver in the sun.
Though just 44, he looks older. His hair has turned white and grey, his hands are calloused and his nails dirty from the agricultural work he performed in jail.
Dimitar served almost three years for robbery in Idrizovo, the largest prison in Macedonia. It was not his first jail sentence. Twice convicted for stealing, he first went to prison, for three years, in 2003. After just one year of freedom, he was back in the cells by 2007.
Dimitar is one of thousands of ex-prisoners in Macedonia who find it almost impossible to reintegrate into a society that rejects them.
On release, ex-convicts receive a one-off package of 4,700 denars (75 euros). There is no state programme to assist with getting a job or even simply provide advice on how to survive outside jail. Instead, they are left to fend for themselves. Most flounder.
Shunned by their families and returning, in many cases, to the poorest parts of a country blighted by high unemployment, all too often they drift back into a life of petty crime.
Tough on the outside
About 1,600 prisoners are released from jail in Macedonia each year. Returning home, they face a bleak future. Few have completed secondary education and many suffer from mental or psychological problems. It is estimated that more than 30 per cent of people in prison are drug-users.
Unsurprisingly, the rate of reoffending among former prisoners in Macedonia is high. Last year, the authorities at Idrizovo revealed that 60 per cent of the prison’s inmates had been to prison at least once before. In 2008, just 548 of the 1,268 people serving prison terms in Idrizovo were first-time offenders, say prison officials. The other 720 were returnees.
The chances of reoffending are greatest during the months immediately following release, says Aleksandra Gruevska Drakulevski, a criminologist in the capital Skopje.
Once out, former prisoners usually find themselves in a far tougher environment than the one they have just left, as they face high unemployment, acute financial problems and isolation from family and the wider community.
According to the Justice Ministry’s Department for the Execution of Sanctions, a total of 2,215 people were in jail in Macedonia in 2009. Only 27 were serving life sentences. The rest will all be released at some stage. But, if nothing changes, more than half are likely to be back behind bars at some point.
In spite of the high rate of reoffending, and the heavy cost this poses to the state and society, Macedonia has yet to set up even a rudimentary liaison service for former prisoners.
“Not a single state organisation or institution offers ex-prisoners any assistance in reintegration,” says criminologist Drakulevski.
While charities and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) campaign to protect the environment and champion human rights, for example, few appear to have any interest in assisting former jailbirds.
Mile Mladenovski, director of Idrizovo, concedes there are too few staff members available to work with inmates serving sentences. The prison has no resident psychologist and only one full-time social worker. Education officers, there are 20 in total, are each responsible for at least 60 prisoners.
“We believe that work in prison is a basic form of re-socialisation but we can’t provide it for everyone because we lack security officers and can’t place the products made by the prisoners [in shops],” he adds.
Of the 1,272 prisoners incarcerated in Idrizovo last year, only 300 were able to find places on prison work programmes, producing agricultural products, tending livestock or making furniture from wood.
Fourteen inmates in Idrizovo’s open-prison section were given permits to work outside. The other two-thirds did nothing.
‘People don’t give me a chance’
When Dimitar was released in 2006 after serving his first jail sentence for theft, he tried several times to find a job. But whenever he admitted to a prospective employer that he had been in prison, he received the same answer: “We’ll call you within seven days.” They never called back.
As a result, he tried concealing his past and twice found work, once in a car wash and then distributing yoghurt for a dairy. But his past always caught up with him.
“In a month or two they would learn I’d been in jail and show me the door,” he says. “People don’t give me a chance. This is our world. If you’re an outcast, they’ll push you even deeper down.”
Only two months after he went to prison for the second time, his wife lost her job. The owner of the store where Marina worked told her he was losing business because customers now regarded her with suspicion, on account of her husband.
Most ex-prisoners tell the same story about fruitless job hunts. Fifty-year-old Elena - not her real name - says she looked everywhere for work after she was released. But everyone closed the door when they heard she had served ten years for committing a “financial crime” at her former company. She was unwilling to talk about her offence in detail.
Elena says she tried becoming a cleaner, as it involves handling a broom instead of money. But the only job she could find was with a charity. Now she cuts hair for homeless people and washes their clothes, for which she says she receives a miniscule 3,000 denars [50 euro] a month.
“I don’t know which was worse; at least in prison I didn’t have to think about buying food or paying bills,” she says. “Now I don’t know whether to spend my money on medicines or on bread.”
When someone is sent to prison in Macedonia, the entire family shares the experience to a degree.
Milka, a skinny, raw-boned woman in her early sixties, is the mother of a prisoner. Her son started using drugs, which then led him to start stealing in order to supply his habit.
Living alone on the outskirts of Skopje, she, too, is paying a stiff penalty for her son’s offences. Because of him, people who formerly knew her no longer talk to her. When she goes into stores, assistants follow her round, suspecting she might steal, she says.
Milka once dreamed of a very different life for her son. “I am just scared that when he comes out of prison, no one will reach out to help him and he’ll be very disappointed,” she says. “He already lost his will to live. My heart aches.”
Dimitar’s parents tried to hide the fact that their son was behind bars, claiming that he had found a job in Italy.
When the lie got out a few months later, the shame destroyed the family. His father soon died. His mother lost weight, stopped going out and has also since died. His sister moved to Montenegro.
His wife, Marina, has more or less left him. “At the beginning, she visited every month and brought photos of our son but after a year, the visits became less frequent; her parents had convinced her to leave me,” he says.
“My son, who is eight, thinks I don’t love him because I’m not at home and he refuses to talk to me when I phone.”
Dimitar and Marina are not officially divorced but these days she lives with her parents, while he lives in his late parents’ house. He still hopes they can get back together if only he can get a job. “I just need steady work,” he claims. “I think she would come back then.”
Most prisoners are not as confident about their prospects. In Macedonia, as elsewhere, prisoners tend to internalise the bad opinions that others hold of them, reports suggest.
The US Bureau of Justice Statistics, for example, reported in 2006 that half the American prison population was battling loneliness, depression and psychological instability.
‘Universities of crime’
Some experts believe conditions in most prisons – wherever they may be - are rarely conducive to reforming the lives of those incarcerated there.
Andrew Neilson, assistant director at the Howard League for Penal Reform, in London, describes prisons generally as “universities of crime” that cost a lot of money and have little or no success in rehabilitating inmates.
Macedonia’s prisons have been repeatedly condemned as inhumane, following reports by the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights.
The Council of Europe’s 2006 report on Macedonian jails singled out chronic overcrowding as a severe problem, with more than 25 prisoners sharing a single room in some prisons.
In answer to this criticism, the government earmarked 56m euros for investment in the reconstruction and enlargement of prisons. No funds appear to have been allocated for the rehabilitation of former convicts.
In a country where 33.5 per cent of the population is jobless, the government has little incentive to make ex-convicts a priority when it comes to jobs.
Dimitar Stojanovski, head of Macedonia’s Employers’ Organisation, insists that ex-convicts are not discriminated against in employment procedures, as this would violate the constitution.
But statistics show that very few companies give former offenders a second chance. Macedonia’s Employment Agency reported that in 2009, when 1,643 prisoners were released, only seven ex-convicts obtained formal posts.
In Britain, a 2007 survey by the London-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, Employing Ex-offenders to Capture Talent, suggested former prisoners are most likely to be hired by non-governmental organisations. Ex-convicts were least likely to find work in the private sector.
Only eight per cent of British employers that had hired an ex-prisoner said they would be willing to share this information publicly, according to the same survey. Most employers said they feared it could damage the reputation of their companies.
However, the survey results indicated employers should not be so worried. Sixty-five per cent of companies that had hired former prisoners reported that they had had a positive effect on their organisation.
Drama as therapy
The prisons in Macedonia’s neighbouring countries are little or no better in terms of aftercare. Dusanka Garic, from the Serbian Justice Ministry’s Department for Execution of Sanctions, says she does not know what happens to ex-prisoners unless and until they return to prison.
Authorities in Belgrade provide no special measures to assist them. According to official data, 60 per cent of Serbian prisoners will eventually reoffend. Of 9,023 people in jail in Serbia in 2009, 5,420 were recidivists.
ApsArt, a Belgrade-based arts NGO, is the only organisation in the country that does anything to work with prisoners to prevent them from reoffending.
Aleksandra Jelic, director and founder, uses drama as a form of therapy, to help prisoners confront likely challenges ahead and work together on solutions.
“We might stage a scene, for instance, on how they would react if they met an old friend who was still on drugs,” Jelic explains. “When one answers, the others comment and say where he got it wrong and how he could react better.”
Former prisoner and reformed drug addict Dragan, 43, from the town of Nova Pazova, says the drama exercises helped prepare him for life outside. He learned how to recognise his weaknesses and be more tolerant of people around him.
But Dragan is frustrated that more than a year after his release he remains unemployed and an object of suspicion. “People see me as I was in the past, not as I am now,” he says. “Because of the bad past, they already have in mind what might happen to me in future.”
His marriage has ended and he has not seen his daughter for 12 years. They are friends only on Facebook.
A helping hand in Britain
In Britain, by contrast, government and NGOs work together to offer former prisoners help when it comes to reintegrating into society.
When Londoner Bill Taylor, 53, was released from jail a year ago, after serving 23 years for murder, people from the St Giles Trust, an NGO based in Camberwell, south London, were there at the gates to welcome him.
The prison had already sent St Giles Trust a letter, saying he needed accommodation and assistance with reintegration into society because he had lost all contact with family and friends while being in jail for so many years.
“When they let me out I was scared because I didn’t know how things would develop,” Taylor recalls. “It was really hard to get used to life outside prison.”
But the trust placed him in a hostel, taught him how to fill out forms for welfare, draw up a CV, use a computer and to dress for and answer questions appropriately at job interviews.
In the end, after nine months of volunteering at St Giles, he got a full-time job there.
The trust has a policy of employing ex-prisoners when it can. Of the 150 staff, 40 are ex-convicts.
Hiring former prisoners brings a two-fold benefit. When newly released prisoners visit St Giles, they feel more confident talking to staff whose experiences mirror their own. In addition, a number of former prisoners get steady work.
Tamsin Gregory, a spokeswoman for St Giles, stresses that they could not work as well as they do without significant government aid. About 70 per cent of their funds come from central and local authorities, while the rest comes from donations.
“We cooperate with 20 jails in Britain and every month we find homes for 100 former convicts,” she says.
The work of NGOs such as the St Giles Trust complements government policy, which is designed to prevent ex-prisoners from being shut out of the jobs market.
In prison, they are encouraged to take college degrees or learn new skills. Under the UK’s Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, ex-convicts who have served less then two-and-a-half years in jail are not obliged to tell potential employees that they have a criminal record once that conviction is ‘spent’.
A conviction becomes spent as long as the former prisoner does not reoffend during their ‘rehabilitation period’. The length of the rehabilitation period varies according to the sentence. Typically, it would take ten years for the conviction of an adult who served a custodial sentence of between six months and 2.5 years to be deemed spent.
Ex-convicts are, however, obliged to reveal their criminal records if they seek work with children, the elderly or the sick. Organisations working with these groups are not allowed to hire former prisoners. Before hiring anyone, they have to check the candidate’s file in the Criminal Records Bureau.
In Macedonia, after serving their time, prisoners return home if they can or squat in abandoned dwellings. Only a handful will find a bed in the Mladost homeless people’s home, located in Cicino Selo, near Skopje.
On the day Dimitar left prison, he did not go straight home. With both parents dead, no one would be there to welcome or even feed him. Instead, he went to St Petka’s church, which offers a free lunch to the poor.
The courtyard of the church in the centre of Skopje is crowded with people, amongst whom Dimitar recognizes several former inmates.
Before lunch starts, the woman organising the food says a prayer, which the people follow. One, dressed in rags, dirty, with messy hair and beard, starts crossing himself and mumbling: “Our Father, who art in heaven…” The kitchen door opens. “Come on. It’s all set,” a female voice can be heard saying.
The people surge forward. “Today they’re on time. Sometimes they’re late,” Dimitar smiles, looking at his watch. He is clearly a regular customer at St Petka’s during his spells out of jail. The smell of casserole spreads from the kitchen.
Here at least, former prisoners feel equal. The kitchen is open to all who are hungry. But after lunch, they face the same challenges. Do they return to crime, or try to live honestly? Many will go back to their old ways just to survive. The vicious circle continues.
This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN.