The Drama of Working with Stigma



This paper is based on an ethnographic study that took place between 2014-2016 in Romania. Fifty-eight  ex-prisoners  (of whom 28 were Roma) were followed up for one year after release, in order to develop a better comprehension of their understanding, their resources, their symbols, their obstacles and their strategies in the reentry process. Using a dramaturgic coding approach [1], we have identified different employment routes depending on the participants personal and social capital, opportunities available and the environment they live in. Moreover, it became obvious that ex-prisoners  lack skills for self-presentation,  in particular they lackpersonal  front’  [2] – a lack which,  in combination  with learned  helplessness  [3], creates problems for employment. Theory and practice implications are discussed.


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. The study

3. Results

4. Objectives and motives – First of all, work

5. Strategies and tactics – And now I am working only in the black market …’

6. Conflicts and obstacles – We might have a problem with the criminal record …’

7. PROPS – If I show them the criminal record, they will never employ me

8. Discussion


1. Introduction

Work is associated directly with desistance from crime [4, 5, 6, 7], sometimes through a cognitive or identity transformation [8]. Yet, finding work is very often one of the key struggles that former prisoners encounter in the first months after release.

The paper is based on an ethnographic study conducted with 58 prisoners released from one of the largest prisons in Romania-Bucharest Jilava Prison. Jilava Prison is not only one of the largest but also one of the oldest in Romania, being set up in 1907.


2. The study

The research was based on an ethnographic design. Data collection included semi-structured interviews, observations, questionnaires visual methods. As far as this particular paper is concerned, data from semi-structured interviews and observations were found to be most useful.

All prisoners with less than 6 months to release in 2016 were informed about this research

and invited to take part.

Data collection

Semi-structured interviews and observations took place one week prior to release (or on the day of release), one week after release, one month, three months, six months and after one year from  release. Each  interview  and  observation  followed  a clear  protocol.  Interviews  were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Observation fieldnotes were recorded on a Google Drive protected with a password. Each participant received a code to prevent anybody outside the research team identifying them.

Data analysis

As a theoretical framework employed for the data analysis and interpretation, we chose an adapted version of the dramaturgical approach developed first by Goffman [9] and later by [10].

We considered this framework useful because it provides an analytic context in which the details of the everyday efforts and interactions  towards employment  can be inte grated and understood in their context. For the purposes of this study, the following codes were applied to the transcripts:

1.   OBJ: objectives or wants or needs;

2.   TAC: tactics employed by the participants to deal with conflicts and obstacles;

3.   CON: conflicts or obstacles confronted by the participants/actors which prevented them from achieving their objectives;

4.   PROPS: skills or artefacts used or mentioned by participants related to employment

(e.g., education, qualifications, professional skills etc.).

The dramaturgic coding allows us to have access to how participants understand the social action, reactions and interactions in the process of finding and keeping employment. Thus, a dramaturgic approach enables a deeper understanding of the lived experience.


3. Results

In this section, we will describe how participants manage conflicts and understand/feel about the process of seeking employment and maintaining it. In the next section these descriptions will be further analysed and compared to the existing literature.


4. Objectives and motives – First of all, work

Objectives and motives are very important in our analysis because they provide the drive for action. With only a few exceptions, all participants were thinking of becoming economically active, especially after the second or the third week of release. This stage was called elsewhere the  Activation  stage  because  the  dominant  concern  of  the  participants  become  to  be economically active or autonomous (for more detail, see [11]).

From their accounts it looks like work is a means to start a new life or to begin to give some

meaning to the existing one:

-     Future plans? … to search for a job. Lets see how its goes(MH)

-     First of all, work! Work to earn a living(MH)

For other participants work is a tool to earn autonomy:

This is what I planned from the beginning: to be independent. Not to depend on anyone’ (MM)

Participant: I finally got employed. I start finding a way. I start settling down. Researcher: What do you mean?

P: I dont know. To start doing something with my life. I need to start doing something apart from selling drugs, which I did in the past. I will stay here for a while until I find something better to give me more perspectives for the future.(NM)

In some cases, work is a way to compensate the family for the harm caused by their absence:

The biggest problem is the family. My family was very affected by what happened to me. This gives me the courage to do whatever to make them feel I am close to them.(BD)

Based on one reason or another, work is an essential component of adaptation to freedom. Although the objective was somehow stable, the specific plans to achieve it were very often

fluid. It happened many times that a plan was discussed one week and was forgotten by the week after. This observation will be further developed in the next section discussing the strategies and the tactics used to achieve this objective.


5. Strategies and tactics – And now I am working only in the black market …’

As  we  shall  see  in  the  next  section  dedicated  to  obstacles  and  conflicts,  ex-prisoners encounter many difficulties when attempting to access the labour market. In order to deal with them, they develop different forms of adaptations or strategies.

One important resource for employment is former employers. Although they play their role in only a few cases, they sometimes provided work to ex-prisoners straight away, after the first week of release. Based on the participants’ accounts it seems important that they keep in touch with their ex-employers during their time in custody and were known as hard working and competent people at work. It is also to be noted that participants usually evaluated the jobs provided by their former employers as good.

Another role – a small one though – is played by friends from the past. Usually, they are good Samaritans with small businesses in constructions or commerce willing to help. Usually, they help  initially also  with basineeds (e.g., food) and look after the welfare of the ex- prisoners.

As with the ex-employers, past history and trust seems very important.

Going abroad’ is another strategy used by some participants. However, most of these strategies are like walking on thin ice. Precarity and instability are the words that best describe their condition.


6. Conflicts and obstacles – We might have a problem with the criminal record …’

The strategies described above are not deployed in a vacuum but in a very complex and often painful social and personal context. Released prisoners very often complain in the first two- three weeks of symptoms that can be associated to some forms of post-traumatic stress disorder (see also [12]): e.g., flashbacks, lack of sleep, dizziness, asking permission to switch off the light, etc.

These  symptoms may be augmented also by the deep feelings of shame that some participants mention in their narratives:

How could I go there? I am ashamed. If they call me, I might go but …’ (MH)

Some of them laugh. Some ask me how was it in there. I try to ignore them or laugh with them. They ask only to laugh. They dont care. They are not interested.(MM)

Linked to shame is the constant feel of stigma that some participants reported:

‘[My brother is avoiding me] … I dont know why he does that. I dont need his money. I am not interested. Many people told me that he is afraid that I would draw attention on him and he is afraid of that’ (NM)

For the moment nobody gave me any work around here. They are afraid that I did time in prisonThey are afraid I will steal from them(MM)

Post-traumatic stress disorder, shame, stigma and health issues may explain at least partly the limited mobility that ex-prisoners experience in the first two-three weeks. By the time of release many participants reported complex and difficult family issues, such as splitting with their wives or partners, separation from their children and so on.


7. PROPS – If I show them the criminal record, they will never employ me

PROPS are those elements that participants/actors  use to support their roles. In our case, props are skills or artefacts used to enhance the participants presence in the labour market. In Goffmans terms [2] they are items of expressive equipment, the items that we most intimately identify with the performer himself. More specifically,  we were searching for narratives, speech patterns, gestures etc. that enhance the representation of the performer in front of the employers.

Although we were asking extensive questions related to employment, the descriptions of the skills or other material or non-material devices (e.g. recommendation letters, qualifications) were very short or absent from the participantsdiscourses. This observation may be explained partly by the fact that most of the participants were looking for low skill jobs that do not require elaborate skills.

I am not an artisan but some things I know how to do(DR)

Those who have some work qualifications tend to present themselves using words related to their hard skills:

I am a driver(AR)

I have made some staircases. This is what I know: to work on metal(DV)


8. Discussion

As noted above, finding, creating or maintaining a job is a very complex and a difficult game to play for ex-prisoners. It seems that the performance on the labour market is very much dependent on personal and social capital, opportunities and environment. Depending on these four components, the ex-prisoners are somehow conditioned to take one or another employment route.

The use of dramaturgic coding approach allowed us to observe that ex-prisoners tend to display very poor props – soft skills, recommendations, proofs of their work and so on.

Narratives around these skills were very rare and brief. Combining the scripts with our own observations allows us to conclude that ex-prisoners, in Romania at least, have very poor self- presentation skills. Their personal front’ [2] seems to be undermined by learned helplessness [13, 14, 3] or self-stigma [15]. In many cases, we had the impression that participants were not looking for a job but for confirmations that they are rejected. Other problematic areas we identified were negotiation or inter-personal skills.

These observations have important implications for prison and probation practice. Treatment staff should be able to provide cognitive training, role-play and other experiential therapies to enhance inter-personal skills, hope, self-confidence and positive disclosure strategies among ex-prisoners. As consistency should exist between appearance and manner, these strategies should be integrated in wider self-presentation strategies and identities.

The study took place in an environment where the number of jobs for employees with a low level of schooling (1-8 grades) increased in 2016 compared with 2015. Moreover, the number of jobs in industries such as mining, constructions, metal and transportation increased significantly in 20161 which facilitated ex-prisoners to find jobs in these areas.

The unemployment  rate in Bucharest was around 2% in 20162, which means that the economic environment of our participants was quite fortunate. It would be highly important to duplicate this study in an environment where low-level jobs are not available or the ex-prisoner friendly industries are not developed (e.g., construction, metal industry, agriculture etc.).

The present study is a small scale, qualitative one and therefore it suffers from the same limitations as other similar studies. However, as it included participants with different personal and social capital, differenbackground  and so on, it was able to captu re the complexity of the employment process.


Funding information

This work was supported by Norway Grants and Romanian Authority for Scientific Research under Contract no. 9SEE/2014.


[1]  PIAROM study of the Romanian economy, available at:

[2] Statistics available on the National Agency for Employment:


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