Social reintegration through the eyes of women ex-detainees

PNUD Algérie

Following the launch of the judicial reform process in 1999, UNDP has been supporting the General Directorate of Prison Administration and Rehabilitation (DGAPR) in its effort to improve detainee care during and after their incarceration. 

Through the “Support of the social reintegration of detainees” project, which began in 2014, UNDP and DGAPR prioritized a more humane approach to social reintegration, placing detainees’ needs at the heart of the approach. The project focused on strengthening psychological care offered to prisoners through assessment and referral services and paid particular attention to the most vulnerable groups of detainees, especially women.

The project worked on strengthening the role of civil society organizations in the reintegration of prisoners, through an effective partnership with DGAPR’s external services. The main aim of this support was to enhance chances of reintegration into society after prison release, and to better address concerns and expectations of detainees and ex-detainees.

The project also provided an opportunity to share Algeria’s experience of reintegration at a regional level.

A look back at the project's main results:

The project supported the establishment of individual treatment programs and strengthened the capacities of DGAPR staff through the elaboration of manuals – now available in all Algerian prisons – on the development of programs relating to the psychological treatment of women, minors, drug addicts, violent offenders and reoffenders. All women and minors now benefit from these programs. Similarly, a multi-family therapy program has been implemented in 3 main establishments and psychologists received training in its implementation. A therapy program for violent detainees was also established enabling a 97% drop in aggressive behavior among inmates.

The project also contributed in re-energizing the partnership between DGAPR and civil society. Thanks to significant capacity-building activities for associations representatives and DGAPR staff working in external services (the services in charge of following ex-detainees after their release), the capacities of the Algerian reintegration ecosystem to cater adequately for the needs of ex-detainees has been greatly improved. Thanks to the establishment of a digital platform the DGAPR’s 32 external services now possess an efficient tool to follow the files of over 11,000 prisoners and connect and cooperate with their 210 partner associations. 

By 2021, it is estimated that over 6,000 inmates have seen their reintegration into society facilitated through this ecosystem, notably through vocational training, housing acquisition, etc.

A category of inmates with specific needs: Women

Although they represent less than 1.7% of the prison population, female prisoners require special care. The limited number of women's quarters in prisons impacts their imprisonment, which generally takes place far from their home, and often results in a definitive break of their ties with the outside world, particularly their families. This isolation has harmful repercussions on their post-prison reintegration, making them greatly vulnerable and at a high risk of reoffending.

In June and July 2022, UNDP Algeria gathered the testimonies of three women, Fatima (from Bouira), Nacera (from Setif) and Aicha (from Tlemcen), three former prisoners with very different backgrounds, who have all benefited from the actions carried out by the DGAPR with UNDP’s support.

A crucial psychological support

Nacera, an executive with a state-owned company, used to have a good professional position prior to her time in prison. She admitsthat the first major difficulty she faced on her arrival at the penitentiary was of psychological nature,as she struggled to accept her incarceration. The perspective of leaving prison was also generating apprehension. She was worried to be without resources, and uncertain about the reactions of her next of kin or friends.

Nacera: "The first major difficulty I encountered was accepting my incarceration. It was very hard for me to accept the situation, either in principle or psychologically. [...] The release haunted my mind, insofar as I wondered what I was going to do afterwards. I was no longer earning a salary, and I was worried about the change in my social environment, my family and friends, so it was essential for me to rebuild my life from scratch".

Aicha, who was married at a very young age (19) to an acquaintance of her father, found herself in a difficult situation, with a largely absent husband and three dependent children. After her incarceration, she was constantly worried about her children from whom she was separated, and feared rejection from her family and friends upon her release. Like Nacera, she experienced the shock of imprisonment very severely.

Aicha: "It was very hard because it's a place I didn't know, you learn patience, you reconsider the value of freedom in a different way".

Nacera and Aicha describe how the psychological support they received in prison was crucial in enabling them to accept their situation and move forward. The psychological care provided by psychologists from the assessment and referral services and external services enabled them to better manage their suffering, and above all, to start thinking about life after prison.

Nacera: "My psychological care, through a succession of sessions at the start of my incarceration, was very positive, it led me to training programs, which eventually led me to obtain my second baccalaureate, and two diplomas in sewing and hairdressing, and made me forget the situation I was going through. The External Services visited us regularly, they made the inmates aware of the different opportunities that might be open to them on their release. They were very reassuring about the post-release period, promising us support and help. This also calmed me down and I dreaded my release less".

Aicha: "During my time in prison, I received psychological support that was not limited to the initial assessment and weekly sessions, but was also made available to me when I requested it".

External Services also kept providing psychological support for the women once they were released from prison.

Nacera: "Once I was released, the department's psychologist accompanied me for a long time with individual sessions that did me a lot of good, and which I even recommended to friends I was visiting in prison and who were getting ready to leave."

Tailored support to optimize socio-economic reintegration 

A chaotic family background and major relationship problems led Fatima to prison.

"My life wasn't stable, I lived in constant doubt and fear, and sometimes I was forced to live in the streets". 

In prison, Fatima, after she met the External Services, began to take part in the training programs offered by the Prison and Rehabilitation Administration.

"Once I started seeing External Services, I was able to define my goals for the future, to persevere in learning and get a job. External Services made me realize that this was the only way out, which is what I'm doing today."

The support provided, and in particular the training she received, enabled Fatima to acquire an important skill for her socio-economic reintegration, self-confidence:

"Thanks to the training program, I came out stronger and more determined than ever. I was able to obtain five diplomas in hairdressing, sewing, cooking, craft decoration and traditional cakes. Thanks to this experience, I've come to realize that I'm capable of achieving many good things".

In 2020, thanks to the project, she was able to benefit from a sewing machine, giving new meaning to her passion for sewing, enabling her to develop her own income-generating activity. Today, with this machine, she sews sheets which she sells and also trains other women in sewing.

Upon leaving prison, Fatima had no decent accommodation and was sleeping in a garage. She contacted external services, who guided and supported her in her efforts to secure social housing, where she now lives. 

"Now I have social and financial stability, I'm completely independent, and I thank God for that".

Aicha has also benefited from access to vocational training, particularly in hairdressing.

After being released on parole, she was referred to the External Services, who helped her to take advantage of training in business start-up, and assisted her in the steps she needed to take with the Chamber of Handicrafts to have her new diploma recognized, and to put together a file for ANEM, Algeria’s national employment agency.

Aicha has now found a job in a school as a secretary.

"If, with the help of external services, I manage to get training as an educator, I'd like to stay at this school and devote myself to this job".

She was able to regain custody of her children, and applied for social housing with the support of External Services.

The time in prison gave Nacera the opportunity to consider a career change:

"I would never have thought of going into business before my time in prison, but this experience made me realize that I was capable of achieving great things.  Deep down, I felt obliged to prove to society that I'd changed for the better after that [...] My determination was extraordinary when I got out of prison for good. I immediately got in touch with the External Services who helped me set up my business. They gave me a letter of guidance which made it easier for me to obtain a loan to finance my project".

Thanks to the continued support of External Services, her file was prioritized and she obtained a 10,000,000 dinars loan to launch her own packaging business in 2019. Her factory now employs 12 people, including four women, and has around 20 customers, including four permanent ones. "Most of them know about my past and help me a lot with orders and even actions to benefit prisoners. I'd like to thank them for their trust and their belief in rehabilitation".

She continues to benefit from the support of External Services, who are helping her to coordinate with local authorities in order to secure a plot of land to expand her business.

Encouraging solidarity between inmates

During her time in prison, Nacera herself became involved in tutoring her fellow inmates, and this experience made her feel much better.

"Over time, I became involved in supporting my fellow inmates at school, and this experience changed my outlook on things. I gained a family in this prison, my fellow students and my supervisors. Being a trainer during my time in prison (tutoring math and natural sciences) was a great personal experience. Seeing my fellow prisoners pass their baccalaureate exams, after getting my support, is a memory engraved in my mind".

She is now pursuing her commitment through her involvement with ARABT, an association working with prisons. Now at the head of her own company, she is able to employ six ex-prisoners upon their release and is providing a springboard for these women to begin their own process of reintegration.

When asked about her aspirations for the future, Fatima hopes to pass on what she has learned through the program, by setting up an association dedicated to training.

All the women have learned important lessons from their time in prison:

Aicha: "I never thought I'd one day be in prison, and thinking about that period makes me realize how hard it was, but it also showedme my responsibilities towards my children. Today, all I want is to guarantee them a future and success at school. During my incarceration, my 10-year-old son did everything he could to progress at school (…), which gave me even more strength and ambition for the future".

Fatima: "My family relationships have improved, which has brought balance to my life".

Nacera: "If I hadn't gone to prison, I would have never thought I'd see what I had seen. People doing well in such a context was unimaginable to me, and yet I saw functionally illiterate women learn how to read and write. Moreover, I've seen some of them come out with university degrees. Most of us have also graduated in hairdressing, sewing and cooking out of desire, not only out of need. Through this experience, I've come to realize that the State does a lot to help people who want to get out of their criminal track".

"I also want to get more involved in helping women prisoners, because you have to understand that regaining confidence is very difficult, especially for a woman. My battle is a daily one, but I'm not giving up".

This initiative places Algeria at the forefront of the issue of prisoner reintegration at the regional level.

This project, co-financed by the Algerian government and UNDP, has received financial support from several international partners, including the United States of America (MEPI) and the Embassy of the Swiss Confederation in Algeria.