The recent launch of the Yellow Ribbon Community Truck offered Singaporeans a graphic peek into the plight of citizens who have been behind bars, and the equally painful experiences of family members, especially those struggling without a breadwinner. This is another sound initiative of the Yellow Ribbon Project, a hard-working organisation which has, for more than a decade, sought ways to draw public support for former convicts trying to restart a normal life after serving time. The average number of inmates freed each year is over 9,000, or almost the size of an army division. But collateral victims like loved ones can quadruple the total number of mangled lives to an equivalent of an army corps.
This makes the case for the successful reintegration of this group into mainstream society not insignificant. Left on their own, they might flounder and pose a burden on society. Worse, some former inmates might return to crime if they feel they have absolutely no other option. Recidivism has spiked with almost three in 10 former inmates, in the most recent measurable cohort freed in 2012, returning to prison - the highest rate of relapse in nine years.
Thankfully, there is growing social recognition of the need to give these people a greater reason to not re-offend. With more firms signing up to hire former offenders, recidivism among drug offenders, for example, has lessened. But the road ahead remains an uphill one largely because the stigma of distrust is difficult to erase. It clings to former offenders like intangible permanent glue, despite the yeoman work of Yellow Ribbon, and State-initiated bodies like the Community Action for the Rehabilitation of Ex-offenders and statutory board Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises.
The stigma's persistence reflects old prejudices that cast even successful reintegration as a case of lowering standards out of sympathy, rather than one of genuine achievement. Singaporeans can take a cue from other nations where stakeholders regularly publicise ex-con celebrities and achievers as success stories worthy of emulation by all. If there are indeed former convicts who have made good in Singapore's toniest establishments and top corporations, their background tends to be veiled. There is a lingering perception that a criminal record suggests a streak of dishonesty remains latent in someone in perpetuity. Instead, one should see time spent in prison (like other life-changing experiences) as strengthening character and resolve. There are many who have parlayed punishable failure into honest, hard-won merit. They truly deserve a second chance, like bankrupts and those who've made serious mistakes that are not deemed criminal. To ostracise them indefinitely would deny them a fresh start, and society of their contributions.