Perpetrators at First, Victims at Last: Exploring the Consequences of Stigmatization on Ex-Convicts’ Mental Well-Being

Date01 September 2021
Published date01 September 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Perpetrators at First, Victims
at Last: Exploring the
Consequences of Stigmatization
on Ex-Convicts’ Mental
Frank Darkwa Baffour
, Abraham P. Francis
, Mark David Chong
Nonie Harris
, and Portia Darkwa Baffour
The article investigates ex-convicts’ experiences of stigmatization and its effect on their well-being in
selected prisons in Ghana. Qualitative data were collected from 20 male inmates who, after residing
for a time in the community, were thereafter reincarcerated. Findings indicate that these men were
subjected to stigmatization and degrading treatment in the community, which limited their chances
of securing lawful employment, establishing romantic relationships, and even maintaining platonic
and family ties. As a result, this negatively impacted upon their mental well-being, leading some to
substance abuse and suicide ideation. The article thereafter discusses policy and future research
implications that arise from these findings.
mental well-being, stigmatization, ex-convicts, substance use, suicide ideation
The stigmatization perpetrated against formerly incarcerated people is a global social justice
problem (Decker et al., 2015; Haight et al., 2016; McGinley & Jones, 2018; Saunders, 2018;
Skinner-Osei & Levenson, 2018; Turney et al., 2013) and the situation in most sub-Saharan
African countries is no exception. Scholars have attributed this region’s intolerance of
ex-convicts to the fact that their current prison systems were imposed on them by colonial
administrators of years long past. During colonial times, these prisons were portrayed to the
populace as a place for housing criminals who were not fit to live in the midst of “good and
law-abiding” people (Ame, 2018; Onyango, 2013; Tankebe, 2013) . This impression has sadly
College of Arts, Society and Education, James Cook University, Douglas-Townsville, Queensland, Australia
North Queensland Combined Women Services, Townsville, Queensland, Australia
Corresponding Author:
Frank Darkwa Baffour, Building 4, Room 134, 1 James Cook Drive, Douglas-Townsville, Queensland 4814, Australia.
Criminal Justice Review
2021, Vol. 46(3) 304-325
ª2020 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016820960785
remained, and even after 5 decades of independence, a majority of these countrie s have barely
made any reforms to the punitive colonial systems that they were saddled with because their
communities continue to hold on to such traditional myths and perceptions about the prison
(Tankebe, 2013). It is therefore not a coincidence that stigmatization perpetrated against
ex-convicts by “good and law-abiding” people is entrenched in most sub-Saharan African coun-
tries—Ghana included (Dako-Gyeke & Baffour, 2016).
Stigmatization is a culturally constructed attribute that devalues a person’s original identity and
leaves an indelible mark on them (Goffman, 1963; Yang et al., 2007). As explained by Phillips et al.
(2012), Goffman’s (1963) authoritative definition made it very clear that stigma was a social
attribute that was “discrediting for an individual or group” and was
...typically regarded as having a negative impact on self-concept and identity formation, resulting in
degrees of social exclusion that may range from difficulty engaging in normal social interaction because
of secrecy or shame to a societal discrediting of the stigmatised individual or group of
individuals ...(p. 681)
Perhaps more importantly for the present study, Phillips et al. (2012) also pointed out how Link
and Phelan (2001) expanded upon Goffman’s definition to include in the conceptualization of
stigma, “ ...the co-occurrence of labelling, stereotyping, separating, status loss and discrimination”
(Phillips et al., 2012, p. 681). Furthermore, Moore et al. (2016) highlighted that “[p]sychological
research shows that ...responses to stigma can interfere with functioning, and lead to maladaptive
behaviours, poor mental health [emphasis added], and difficultyparticipating inthe community...
(p. 196).
A person who has been stigmatized assumes a new social identity that is discrediting of their self-
worth and reinforces prejudices against them. This new master status (Lofland, 1969), for example,
“criminal,” “convict or ex-convict,” “pr isoner,” “inmate or ex-inmate,” and “thi ef,” potentially
condemns that person to lifelong discrimination, ostracization, injustice, and disempowerment, and
often they will be seen as useless in the eyes of community members (Blandisi et al., 2015). In most
of these sub-Saharan African countries, Ghana included, it is perceived that formally incarcerated
people are incorrigible, resistant to change, a bad influe nce, dangerous, lifelong criminals, and
callous (Dako-Gyeke & Baffour, 2016). Such stereotypes create barriers between those stigmatized
and the rest of the community (Bullock & Garland, 2018). For example, there is a popular Ghanaian
adage that goes: “There is always a handful of blood in the tsetse fly’s head and if the animal will not
bite you it will not show the teeth” (translated from Asante Twi to the English language). This and
other similar proverbs are in essence, deeply held cultural stereotyping, as they instill in community
members the myth that people with prior criminal records will forever be criminals and that a
complete transformation of an ex-convict is highly unlikely or improbable. This type of mispercep-
tion will also greatly impact such a community’s understanding and acceptance of prison rehabili-
tative programs.
It should likewise be noted that incarceration, in and of itself, inflicts significant negative
consequences on ex-convicts’ overall well-being (Ali et al., 2018; Schnittker & John, 2007), and
when coupled with the stigmatization that they face within the community, an exacerbation of their
psychological problems should be expected (Van Olphen et al., 2009). Yet, in most sub-Saharan
African countries, stigmatization directed toward ex-convicts is common and, in fact, is socially
approved. For example, in South Africa, previously incarcerated individuals are perceived to be a
bad influence, and there is a corresponding belief that they should be ostracized so as to prevent
children and other community members from modeling their behaviors (Chanakira & Chikadzi,
2017). In Ghanaian communities, ex-convicts are identified as “thieves” and “criminals,” irrespec-
tive of the actual charges for which they were imprisoned (Dako-Gyeke & Baffour, 2016).
Baffour et al. 305

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