17 January 2019
If you’ve ever been in prison, the odds of finding a job on your release can be stacked against you. And if you have no work and no prospects, you’re more likely to reoffend. Integration counsellors like Sylvia Rösch from TÜV NORD offer support on the road back to a working life free of criminality.
For prisoners in Neumünster prison whose release date is drawing near, the first port of call is often Sylvia Rösch. This is because she is an integration counsellor. “I help inmates to find a job or a training position,” says Rösch. She supports the inmates for about a year - six months before release and for the six months thereafter. She works with them to develop strategies for their professional future, helps them write job applications, coaches them prior to job interviews and goes with them on the day, and also helps them deal with organisations such as employment agencies or job centres. And since the inmates of Neumünster prison include youngsters who often haven’t finished their school education, she also offers careers advice. She gets into conversation with the young prisoners to find out about their interests and skills but also to examine the reasons why they may have left earlier jobs or traineeships. The key question that always arises at the very first meeting and goes on to define the entire integration process is this: "What can I do, and what can they do, to ensure they don’t reoffend once they’re out of jail?”
Once you have a job, you’re less likely to reoffend
This is because, as a study carried out by the Criminological Service of North Rhine-Westphalia has demonstrated, the sooner after release an ex-inmate finds a job or a training place and manages to keep it, the lower the probability that they will reoffend. Young people are particularly vulnerable to reoffending - especially in the first few months after release. This is a tragedy for the individuals in question and for society as a whole. To prevent people, once released, from falling into a pit of despair, for instance, the state of Schleswig-Holstein has kick-started transition management programmes. Inmates are given as much close support as possible as they make the leap from the highly regimented daily routine of a prison into a day-to-day life characterised by uncertainty. This is intended to help in the implementation of one of the main goals of the German Penal Code: “As they serve their sentences, inmates should become capable of leading a life without crime in which they exercise social responsibility.” Sylvia Rösch and her colleagues at TÜV NORD Bildung work as integration counsellors in prisons in Kiel, Lübeck and, of course, Neumünster, where young people and adults alike can also be trained as carpenters, bricklayers or decorators.
The first ever CV
For Sylvia Rösch, the first step in this transition starts with an overhaul of the inmate’s curriculum vitae. “For many young people locked up in here, this is the first CV they’ve ever written,” the graduate psychologist explains. In many cases, they don’t have any school-leaving certificates or work references. “Many young inmates can’t imagine, for example, that their lower school-leaving certificate might ever be worth anything.” In the presence of the inmates, Sylvia Rösch then starts phoning round schools and training institutes to gather the documents together.
To make sure that the transition to life outside the prison is as smooth as possible, the actual application process begins in the months prior to release. But how do they deal with the gap in the CV? Shouldn’t an inmate conceal their own record of imprisonment if they don’t want to scupper their chances of ever getting a job before they’ve even begun? This is not an option for Sylvia Rösch. To ensure that the relationship of trust with the potential employer is not blighted before it can even start to develop, she always advises the inmates to come clean in their applications. For this reason, they often add a “third page” to the application. “This is an appendix to the CV, in which you describe what you used to be like, how you’ve changed, and what your plans are for the future,” Sylvia Rösch explains. “In other words, it’s an answer to the questions an employer is going to ask when they peruse the CV.”
© TÜV NORDSylvia Rösch knows how to listen, coach, help and inform.
In actual fact, not inconsiderable numbers of employers are interested in employing someone who is currently still in prison. This is because, Sylvia Rösch reports, young people and adults who have completed an apprenticeship in Neumünster prison or some other educational institution have a lot to offer professionally - as well as often boasting above-average qualifications. Unlike for apprentices on the outside, there are no distractions in prison - all they have is the time to focus entirely on their training. And while apprentices in the private sector are repeatedly called on to do whatever is required for production processes, “here they’re taught things that are going to be important for their future job every single day,” Sylvia Rösch relates. The quality and intensity of the training also means that a lot of apprenticeships in prison are curtailed - without any changes to the conditions in the final exam. And young inmates are highly motivated. The integration counsellor explains things from their perspective: “If they manage to do something that they’ve never done before in their life - like getting their lower school-leaving certificate or completing a training course - that makes them proud and motivates them.”
“If they manage to do something that they’ve never done before in their life – like getting their lower school-leaving certificate or completing a training course – that makes them proud and motivates them.”
But if her young charges should start feeling anxious and insecure about their uncertain future, Sylvia Rösch will intervene to prop them up: "In this job, you have to have both feet on the ground, and your heart’s got to be in the right place. If that wasn’t the case, I’d never be able to bring other people along with me or motivate them.” And the impression she creates of being hands-on and fully engaged leaves no room for doubt that she will succeed in doing so. Equally indispensable for an integration counsellor, however, are a high level of alertness and good knowledge of human nature. After all, anyone who has spent a long time in prison will generally tend to conform, the psychologist explains. “People in prison will do what they’re told - because they have to. The trick is then to recognise whether, once released, they actually stick to what they said they were going to do.”
Interview with waiting period
One of the challenges in the application process is the particular circumstances that go with life in prison. Unlike job seekers in the outside world, prisoners can’t of course just spontaneously turn up to a job interview at short notice. “The required waiting period is 14 days, and that’s also communicated in the application,” explains Sylvia Rösch. If an invitation to an interview should pop up in the prison’s email inbox, she prepares the inmates for the interview situation and goes with them to see the potential employer. If the interview goes well, in the best-case scenario a job or a training position will be waiting for them when they get out. And, as Sylvia Rösch explains, it’s a good idea for there to be a buffer period of a few weeks between the release date and starting work. “If someone has spent four or five years in prison, they may find a lot of things completely overwhelming, starting with traffic and road noise, right the way down to what they want to eat on any given day and what they have to buy to make it.” Learning how to live a self-directed life outside prison takes time. “The ex-inmate has to learn all over again how to organise their day if they’re working for eight hours but also have to go shopping, do their laundry and keep their apartment clean. It’s important for them to set up a routine as quickly as possible.”
Plans for the first steps to freedom
To ensure that freedom doesn’t become too much of a shock, Sylvia Rösch tries to prepare the inmates for their release as thoroughly as possible. She may, for instance, work out specific plans with them as to which agencies they need to go to and in which order and collate the addresses and business hours for them. Once the release date comes, she accompanies the young ex-inmates to the agencies in question and is otherwise available to them to offer support and answer questions. In all of this, one thing is clear: Unlike with visits to the probation officer, they are under no obligation to keep in touch with the integration counsellor. The ex-inmates can freely decide what kind of support they need and when. And that's always a question of age. “Adults get in touch especially if they’re having specific problems, for instance if the job centre or health insurance provider is making life difficult for them.” In such cases, Sylvia Rösch reaches for the phone and sorts the problem out with the agency or office in question. “Actually, I find that all the youngsters get in touch,” the integration counsellor relates. “They often just want to go for a coffee with me.” This is to ensure that the relationship endures well beyond their time in prison.
It’s for precisely this reason that her ears prick up if one of the ex-inmates starts behaving oddly. When, for instance, one of the youngsters deleted her from his list of WhatsApp contacts, the alarm bells started to ring. A phone call with the training institute revealed that the lad had dropped out of his apprenticeship. She informed the probation officer accordingly so that they could jointly decide how to proceed. “If we notice that a youngster is about to do some kind of act of self-harm, we intervene,” says Sylvia Rösch by way of explanation of her responsibility. To ensure that she does her job to the very best of her ability, she works closely with probation officers, the managers with oversight, the trainers or the school. “Everyone has an interest in helping people develop: from the management through to every individual government agency.” And she witnesses time and again how her proteges outgrow their former selves, develop self-esteem, overcome even the severest of drug addictions and gain a foothold in working life: “If someone defies all expectations to overcome major obstacles in their life which might have caused anyone else to fail, that makes me proud and happy.”
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© TÜV NORD
Graduate psychologist Sylvia Rösch from TÜV NORD Bildung works as an integration counsellor in Neumünster prison.