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Crossing the Threshold into Mainstream – Image Management for Prisoners

All of us face many threshold situations in our personal and professional lives. In our introductory blog on threshold situations, we spoke of situations faced by students, professionals, home maker-turned-professionals and the situation where we cross the threshold of marriage. But, the one atypical threshold situation that most of us don’t face is the one a prison convict faces when entering the mainstream.

Image management is the last thing that comes to our mind when we think of a convict. But, the relevance of image management in helping us cross threshold situations smoothly becomes crystal clear when we see how it helps convicts turn into ex-convicts with long-term success.

Once a prisoner isn’t always a prisoner. Not if you get things right.

Tihar may have got it right in some ways, at least to some individuals. 26-year old Ramesh Singh (name changed) who had been barely literate when he had entered prison had landed a job with a chain of restaurants for an annual salary of Rs.4.2 lakh, according to the Hindustan Times.

That remains a pipe dream to the thousands of our prison inmates and it isn’t just about India. Governments all over the word struggle with the subject of successful re-entry of ex-convicts into the mainstream.

They offer education and vocational training since ex-convicts who find jobs are far less likely to regress to their old lives and return to prison. Many prisoners take advantage of the opportunities as these raise their likelihood of gaining employment. Yet, once they step outside, they find that the balance is tilted against them even before they begin. Because ex-convicts in the mainstream are contending with much more than just lack of technical skills. And they fail to cross this threshold successfully.

Employers’ Negative Response

Employer response to an ex-convict applying for a job is far from positive and their profiles don’t make it past the first round. Trouble lies in the fact that ex-convicts must make a positive first impression that overcomes the employer’s response to their prison record.

Take the case of VW in USA who got a job after doing over 80 interviews only to be asked to leave a bare few months later since he had not checked the box for felony conviction. He couldn’t convince his employer that he had not been imprisoned for felony. An organisation run by a Father for ex-convicts came to his rescue and VW was later placed within the organisation. Most aren’t as lucky.

The two things that ex-convicts need to get them back on their feet are a job and a home. While their families can ensure that they have a home – for those that have families who will care for them – it is the job that eventually ensures that they continue to have a home, and turns out to be the biggest stumbling block.

Different Culture

Getting a job isn’t easy at the best of times. Mainstream individuals themselves struggle to find a decent job. Ex-convicts find it harder. The longer their incarceration, the more different their personal, emotional, social skills are – more tuned towards prison culture and vastly different from mainstream demands.

They have just been released from a highly structured and socially isolated environment, monitored closely with little privacy and had lived to a different set of values. These factors alter their psychology during prison time where they may have chosen to lie low or to respond with aggression to defend themselves. While generalisations cannot be made, there are emotional changes with possible withdrawal, isolation, sense of alienation, diminished sense of self-worth and personal value among others.

On release, they enter the mainstream environment which is the complete opposite, turning it into one of the most challenging thresholds to cross. Now, they need the skills to regulate themselves, including their time and they need independent decision-making skills. They face personal, social and structural challenges with little ability to cope with these by themselves.

It’s disorienting to say the least.

Recognising this need, organisations working with prison inmates and helping them re-enter the world, offer guidance in handling interviews and in responding to questions related to their background while helping them get placed.

In fact, the world over, correctional facilities, for example, The Department of Corrective Services of Western Australia, run programs which are meant to improve the prisoner’s problem solving as well as social interaction skills and to help them understand their personal beliefs and values.

Image Management offers that and much more. It takes a holistic approach to getting prisoners ready for life outside.

Image Management – Bridge between Prison & Mainstream

At the best of times, everybody needs image management. In case of ex-convicts, where they have to unlearn the prison learning and relearn how to approach the new world, image management can make all the difference, giving them back their confidence and strengthening their chances of crossing the threshold and making it safe to the other side.

First and foremost, it rebuilds self-respect within the prisoners and helps realign their inner and outer selves in a way that can alter prejudice and negative perceptions of potential employers. It helps prisoners create positive first impressions and these impressions are critical in helping potential employers overcome their resistance to employing an ex-convict.

Unfortunately, the first impressions they had been making in prison are of a different sort – with uniform clothing and grooming, different body language and vocal communication – which are more tuned to a prison than to the mainstream.

When they enter mainstream, it’s as if they are entering a land with a completely different culture and language of its own. Image Management helps them bridge this gap between the culture of prison and that of the mainstream world. It helps prisoners unlearn their past culture and adapt themselves to a new culture.

We have said in our book First Impressions, Lasting Impressions that “Studies conducted on groups of people from different walks of life in different situations have shown people forming first impressions within seconds without exception. These studies have also shown how these impressions stand the test of longer interactions.

So the premise that given enough time you can impress the stranger with your skills, competence and diligence may have little truth in it. Our advice is, create a powerful positive first impression within the first few seconds. Spend the rest of the interaction reinforcing it.”

Time certainly isn’t in one’s favour when creating first impressions. It takes all but a few seconds. Image Management manages this by helping prisoners consciously manage the 4 elements of image management – clothing, grooming, body language and vocal communication. In addition to these elements, which are critical in making a first impression, additional inputs in terms of presentation, promotion of oneself and enhanced soft skills help the prisoners carry an effective professional presence.

The holistic approach also includes training the inmates for interviews, how best to present themselves and coaching them on how to respond to questions about their criminal record.

Will The Real Person Stand Up Please!

In preparing them so completely, Image Management helps enhance their self-image and goes a long way in helping employers gain confidence in them as individuals and as potential employees. At this first hurdle, the prisoner is in a better position since now, the employer has a chance of finding the real person behind the label ‘ex-convict’.

Rewriting the prison script and projecting a positive first impression makes the difference between reversal to the old life and of making a fresh beginning.

Conscious Image Management helps them make that critical first impression which holds employers’ attention long enough to assess the ex-convict’s skill set and technical capabilities. From the prisoners’ end, it gives them the self-possession, poise and balance required to make a positive first impression. It also helps them project their skill set in favourable light.

Image Management tells ex-convicts that they are worth something, that they are valued, first in their own eyes and then in the eyes of the world.  The result is great strengthening of their ability to get a job and to retain a job, which eventually keeps them out of prison.

In fact, the task of preparing the prisoner for re-integration into mainstream life begins the day the prisoner enters the prison. That’s how thresholds are crossed, long before the situation presents itself. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a year or a decade ahead of you, the day you can see the threshold in the future is the time to prepare for it.

ICBI-trained Image Consultants conduct workshops and placement drives in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. To know more about Image Management programmes for prisons, please contact us.

ICBI Consultant Ameeta Nehra Training in Jhajjar Prison ICBI Consultant Megha Mittal Training in Tihar Prison
ICBI Consultant Ameeta Nehra
Training in Jhajjar Prison
ICBI Consultant Megha Mittal
Training in Tihar Prison

Read more about how celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Narendra Modi manage their image across thresholds. Among the typical threshold situations of everyday life, read how students, homemakers-turning-professionals and those who cross the threshold of marriage manage their image.

The entire look and feel of this shoot are visually pleasing as well as harmonious; from the attire to the colour choices to the jewellery, it was a delightful experience watching this creative piece of work.

The Tanishq campaign may have done well overall, however, it could have received a much better response if everything could have been viewed holistically.

About the Author

The author, Suman Agarwal, is the senior-most Image Consultant in the Indian Sub-continent and director of Image Consulting Business Institute. Image Consulting Business Institute is a pioneer in India and one of the biggest brands in the world in Image Management and Soft Skills Training Space. It offers programs for people to become Image Consultants and Soft Skills Trainers and at the same time offers Image Management and Soft Skills Training services to individuals and companies.

To become an Image Consultant visit
To hire an Image Consultant for personal consultation visit
To hire an Image Consultant for corporate services visit 
Suman herself undertakes select personal consultation and corporate training assignments. Write to for any such assignments.

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