Effects of Incarceration on Self Esteem

On his way back from college, Christian John got arrested by the now defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit, spent some months at the SARS facility and was charged with armed robbery and conspiracy. Afterwards, he was taken to the Kuje Correctional Facility where he eventually spent 5 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.

Hope Behind Bars Africa represented Christian and facilitated his freedom.

We were elated by his release, giving ourselves a pat on the back for our efforts, but unknown to us, Christian’s travails had just begun. We followed up his post incarceration journey under our Rehabilitation and Reintegration program, but unfortunately, he was no longer the same man.

During a random check in with Christian, he intimated us about his experiences. He was discriminated against by friends and family. All his attempts to get jobs were futile because of the label, “ex-prisoner”. His experiences took such a toll on his mental health that he decided to change location from one state to another in order to have a fresh start at life; but the deed had already been done. After the relocation, although few knew of his past in his new place of living, Christian had internalized the rejections and eventually locked himself in, refusing to go out anymore. He was slowly losing hope and the will to live.

In our years of experiences representing individuals in conflict with the law in Nigeria, we have witnessed the debilitating effects of incarceration on self esteem. Research also shows that incarceration takes a heavy toll on the mental health of affected persons. In a population-based cohort study from Sweden, the researchers found that the overall suicide risk among released prisoners was 18 times higher compared to the non-convicted general population. The risk increase was even more pronounced during the first months after release. After observing 12 suicides, they found that the incidence rate for suicide was highest during the first 28 days, suggesting that this is a particularly vulnerable period for previously incarcerated persons.

As a self esteem advocate, I have noticed that the effect of incarceration on self esteem is worsened by the fact that in this part of the world, little attention is given to mental health, especially self esteem issues, as many are of the opinion that “Nigerians are resilient people and we will always find a way”. While this may be true to some degree, it still doesn’t change the fact that there is a need to do better in our attitude towards mental health and self esteem issues. The average person has the mindset that people behind bars are automatically guilty and live a wayward lifestyle, meanwhile, many examples abound of individuals who have been wrongly convicted. Another major problem Nigerian correctional facilities face is the high rate of pretrial detention which proves that there is a systemic issue.

Organizations like ours in the criminal justice sector are doing a lot of work on the front end by representing indigent individuals, but we at Hope Behind Bars Africa also recognize the need to equally work on the back end because we understand that no problem can be solved without addressing the root causes and so there is a need to engage stakeholders when we seek to create change in any sector. Beyond the government agencies and parastatals, every individual out there is a stakeholder in the criminal justice sector because a society with a high crime rate is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.

Thus, there is a need to prioritize rebuilding the self esteem of people in conflict with the law because this will significantly curb recidivism and reduce incarceration and pretrial detention. You can also play your part in this effort by doing the following:

  1. Adopt a Positive Mindset

Not every person behind bars is a convict and of course, not everyone behind bars is guilty. Even when they are guilty, they can be reformed. Understanding this truth will go a long way in effecting a mindset shift.

2. Do not Invade their Privacy

Going behind bars makes the affected individual very self conscious. They condemn themselves before they are condemned by others. Many also go through unimaginable torture in detention. This is evidenced by many horrible stories that were shared by victims of the now defunct SARS unit in Nigeria. Therefore, invading their privacy by asking for the details of their time behind bars is subjecting them to reliving the horrors of detention and beyond that, it makes them feel ashamed of their experiences. Rather, focus on creating a safe space for them such that when they feel the need to share their experiences behind bars, they will have recourse to you.

3. Listen to them

Listening is a powerful tool in rebuilding the self esteem of individuals because it leads to self analysis and without self analysis there can be no change. Carl Rogers an American Psychologist aptly summed this up in his quote “… We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know”. Oftentimes, I have found that when people speak to you about challenges or hard times, it is rarely because they need a solution and mostly because they need to let out the pain they feel. For some others, they want to process out loud. So, by listening without being judgemental even when they committed the crime, you give them the gift of acceptance and the knowledge that they are accepted despite their experiences gives them the strength to let go of the shame and self condemnation they feel.

4. Encourage them to go for Therapy.

I saved this for last. Therapy is beyond listening. It is also a treatment plan for traumatic events. In this part of the world, we often resort to self help measures when we experience traumatic events. While there is nothing wrong with that and in fact, they are sometimes very effective, it is still advisable to seek professional help because they have proven skills to diagnose and treat mental health issues, of which low self esteem is one of them.

We are glad to report that with our support, Christian got back on his feet mentally and physically and his self esteem has shown significant improvement over the years.

Rosemary Ochiwu is a Programs Associate at Justicepadi, a civic-tech solution incubated by Hope Behind Bars Africa. She is also the founder of Initiative for Self Esteem Education and Advocacy (ISEEA) an organisation that advocates for SDG 3 by enlightening young people on the importance of self esteem, the effects of low self esteem, and how to overcome them.

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