After waves of prison reform over the past decade, Georgia has radically lowered the incarceration rate in the country and introduced a number of rehabilitation programs. But former prisoners and human rights defenders argue there is neither the resources nor the mechanisms in place to ensure prisoners have a real chance at rehabilitation and resocialization.
“There were some rehabilitation programs at the prison, however since it was voluntary, I did not take part, ”recalls Tamaz Gogaladze, a former prisoner who now owns his own business.
“I was just focused on being released every single day. ”
Tamaz was just one of the thousands of prisoners who chose not to take part in the prison system’s voluntary rehabilitation programs. According to the Public Defender’s Office, only 235 individual plans for serving prisoners in penitentiary institutions were developed in 2021, just 3.2 percent of the country’s 9,203 prisoners.
Deputy Public Defender Giorgi Burjanadze noted there are too few programs—and too few incentives to encourage prisoners to enroll in the services that exist, in part because prisoners do not see the benefit of taking part in the programs.
“ The biggest problem is the lack of rehabilitative measures. During the pandemic prisoners' access to services was limited, but even after the regulations are lifted, there are still very few offers,” he said. “A prisoner who joins various programs is neither released earlier nor receives any other benefits. That's why there is not much engagement."
Even when prisoners sign up, the system lacks the social workers and resources to truly implement the program, according to Tato Kelbakiani, the chairperson of Prevention For Progress, a human rights NGO that is active in prison reform.
“We need to have a corrections system, a system that truly corrects and this should start right in the prison and continue once the prisoner gets released,”he says, adding that many who participate in either a rehabilitation or resocialization program do not succeed.
Nana Koridze, the deputy head of the Resocialization of Convicts-Rehabilitation Department of the Special Penitentiary Service,which is the branch of the justice ministry that oversees the prison system, underscored that there are a number of services available to prisoners to address the gamut of needs, from psychological support to education and employment. “At this stage, we have certain programs that work with these people, this process is ongoing, and we cannot say unequivocally that if they do not go through the rehabilitation program they cannot be rehabilitated because there are many programs that allow prisoners to engage in certain activities,” she said.
Kelbakiani highlighted that a number of factors contribute to the low success rate, but the biggest is the lack of social workers to administer the programs.
“There is a real lack of social workers in penitentiary institutions, ” said Deputy Ombudsman Giorgi Burjanadze. In addition, he said, they lack motivation to do anything more than “produce documentation” due to the low salaries.
The Special Penitentiary Service’s Koridze agrees the system needs more social workers. “Currently, due to the shortage of social workers in the service, it is not possible to fully cover the demand. That is why there are so few prisoners involved,” she said.
Avtandil Khitarishvili, a former prisoner who served eight years in Ksani Prison, said he met a social worker once during the seven years he participated in the prison’s wood carving program. “When I was in prison, they once helped me to release a catalog, a unique one, which included 86 artifacts. Unfortunately, after that, I didn't have much communication with social workers and specialists,” he said. Today Khitarishvili is still using his wood carving skills to make ornaments and figures for churches.
The lack of follow up makes it more difficult to ensure former prisoners have the support and resources they need to reintegrate into society and find jobs after they serve their sentences, according to organizations that work with former prisoners.
“Once I got released, I went to the House of Justice to get some help in orientation, but they did not understand my request at all, they then sent me somewhere, a totally useless place for me,” Khitarishvili recalled.
In 2012, the Ministry of Justice created a program to help address the gap. The program, which focused on former prisoners, aimed to support their return to society and prevent repeat incarceration. Over the years, the program has expanded across the country and, in 2021-2022, the organization Toleranti was selected to work with former prisoners in Georgia’s southern Samtskhe-Javakheti region.
Former prisoner Tamaz Gogladze heard about the program and Toleranti and applied for assistance.
Tsira Meskhishvili, the head of Toleranti, said her organization provided Tamaz and other prisoners with a number of skills such as how to write a business plan and how to apply for funding. “Unfortunately, however, that none of the prisoners’ business ideas received government funding,” she said, adding that due to the short length of the program, Toleranti was only able to work with 20 former prisoners—out of the 538 who were freed in 2021-2022.
The government actually has the funds to help former prisoners, but lacks a good strategy to use it, according to Nana Gogokhia, coordinator of another rehabilitation project "Step by step towards a better future," said. The project was implemented by the Hilfswerk International and IDP Women Association Consent and was funded by the EU and the Austrian Development Agency in 2017-2020.
“It’s not about what you do, but how you do it,” she said. “For example, within the framework of our rehabilitation program, the vocational training service was actually funded and introduced by the Ministry of Education for probationers. However, no matter how surprising it may sound, the ministry did not know anything about this program. When 600 convicts went through the program, we tried to inform the agency about it. So, it means that the Ministry of Education had and still has money allocated for this vocational training program but has no idea how to use it.”
The Ministry of Justice-funded rehabilitation programs also helped former prisoners register on employment sites and find job vacancies. However, “only two out of 20 former prisoners found a fulltime job, ” Meskhishvili said.
Khitarishvili struggled to find a job after he was released.
“Finally I went to Tsira Meskhishvili. She was the only one who understood and who monitored me,” he said.
But the government-funded program was already over, so her assistance was limited and Khitarisvhili still couldn’t find a job.
“I noticed that after my release, every company I turned to for a job was already and strictly ‘occupied,’ and at that point I promised myself to have my own craft, to be self-employed and do my own work, not being financially dependent on anyone,” he said.
Nana Gogokhia said his experience is not unique—private companies in Georgia are hesitant to hire former prisoners. “Society doesn't trust them and always looks at them with suspicion, which is why former prisoners always fight and try to prove that if they have once committed a crime, it doesn't mean that they do not deserve a second chance,” Gogokhia said.
She said prisoner-rehabilitation related services should be available in every municipality so the local government is aware of the programs available and former prisoners can get the help they need when they need it. “If nothing meets the ex-prisoners on the spot, it is highly likely that they will reoffend and end up back in the prison,” she said.
For Khitarishvili, the lack of funding has made it more difficult for him to rebuild his life, even with the skills he acquired while he was in jail.
“I have a large plot in my village…I hope to build my [wood carving] workshop there one day,” Khitarisvhili said. “Am I resocialized completely? I guess so. But I also think that I have to go through a lot in order to start everything from scratch, because eight years in jail was really a lot.”
This feature article was produced in the framework of Chai Khana Fellowship program - Summer-Autumn 2022
This feature story was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES or Chai Khana.
The networking event and the mentorship of the fellows was supported by the Federal Foreign Office and the Civil Society Cooperation program, implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft e.V.