PRAGUE – Miloslav Cerny slipped out during the night to remove graffiti from the city’s famous Charles Bridge, using his professional cleaning skills.
The act of goodwill by Cerny, who served more than 11 years in prison for murder, captured public attention and brought him celebrity.
But it also highlighted the plight of former prisoners trying to reintegrate back into the Czech society.
Cerny’s unauthorized work to remove spray paint from the city’s most famous tourist attraction left Czech officials confused. Prague officials discourage average citizens from removing graffiti from landmarks because removal could also cause damage.
Cerny believes his experience should encourage the Czech Republic to do more to help former prisoners re-integrate. “I am convinced that in my life I have to do more for society than just live within the law,” Cerny says. “Because I have to compensate for the loss I have caused.”
Gabriela Kabatova, a psychologist and executive director of Prison Fellowship, a non-profit that works with ex-convicts, says Cerny’s experience is typical of former prisoners. Many ex-prisoners are anxious about their future.
“Releasing them is like a second punishment, much worse than imprisonment,” Kabatova says. “Sometimes it is masked by euphoria, cynicism, but there is huge uncertainty about being accepted by loved ones and society.”
Cerny murdered his wife and her lover in 1999 and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was released early in 2012, because of good behavior.
“Being released from prison can be mentally challenging,” Cerny says. He feels as if he wrote on his forehead that he was a convict.
“As an ex-prisoner you are afraid you will do something that reveals you have been in prison,” Cerny says.
There are more than 21,000 in Czech prisons. Jakub Drapal, scientific assistant at Department of Criminal Law at the Charles University in Prague, says the main problem in Czech prisons is overcrowding. Prisoners are given longer sentences, compared to other countries such as the Netherlands, whose convicts are more likely to have shorter sentences.
Approximately 70% of former prisoners reoffend after their release, according to the Czech Justice ministry. Drapal says ex criminals in the Czech Republic face numerous challenges because of their long isolation from society.
Employers are reluctant to hire them because they have no recent work history and a criminal record, which then makes it difficult to find housing with no income to secure a deposit.
Psychologist Kabatova says the number of relapses could be decreased by external influence. “The family plays an essential role if they remain in contact with the convict during their sentence. Also, prisoners need to be surrounded with good examples, do not lock them among even harder criminals and hope for them to come out better,” Kabatova says.
Cerny says he has struggled to re-establish his life after prison, he has a strong family support network who has aided his transition. He now has his own cleaning business, professionally cleaning graffiti around Prague, helping to make the city a better place.
“In our society there are a lot of stereotypes such as each released convict will continue to commit crimes,” Cerny says. “I am glad I have a chance to show this may not be always true.”
Authors: Andrea Procházková, Renáta Gajdos, Oksana Rasulova, Kaitlin Wraight