The forgotten child prisoners of Sierra Leone (II)


By Cooper Inveen

Continue from last weekend

‘We are not useless’

Despite the harsh realities of the Remand Home, there is a silver lining for those lucky enough to be convicted before their 18th birthdays. The long delays at the Remand Home have created an abundance of space at the Approved School across town, the country’s only long-term youth detention facility that, with the help of volunteers and NGOs, provides a significant improvement to a juvenile inmate’s standard of living.

There are no cells at the Approved School, but rather two gender-specific dormitories with individual beds and access to pit latrine toilets. While confined to the dormitory during the evenings, the facility’s 18 inmates spend their days in class, technical training sessions or meandering around the multi-acre compound, where a multitude of different fruits and vegetables are free to pick during harvest season.

Still, the facility has its problems. Two of the campus’ three wells have been unusable for years, and a broken seal on the third renders the water undrinkable, so water is retrieved from a well in the surrounding community. Four kids currently sleep on concrete beds without mattresses, despite a storage room on the campus being filled with hundreds of brand-new mattresses the Ministry of Social Welfare says are being saved for distribution to Ebola survivors.

“We can accommodate 60 kids here, which makes things easier, but we still have challenges,” said Bashiru Rogers, the facility’s Officer in Charge. “We don’t have the requisite resources for many things, including getting these children home after their release and often have to keep them here until we can get assistance.

“Those with long sentences – like a boy we have here given 10 years for stealing a speaker set from his church – we strain to give them psychosocial counselling to prepare them for going to the adult prison, because we will eventually have to send them there.”

The relatively better conditions at the Approved School can be largely accredited to volunteers and a small number of development partners. Tailoring, agriculture and carpentry classes are taught daily by volunteers, while basic education is mostly provided by the Italian Ravera Centre for Rehabilitation of Children, which also provides weekly medical assistance alongside the Irish NGO Goal.

“Life is simple here, very different from the Remand Home,” said Matthew*, a 17-year-old inmate nearing the end of his sentence. “We’re very fortunate the staff care about us here, because the government thinks we’re useless. But we’re not useless. We could be the future of this country if only they would give us the chance.”

To help give children that chance, Prison Watch established a programme in 2012 that allows Approved School detainees to take their primary and basic education exams, with the possibility of their sentences being shortened if they pass. It has resulted in the early release of roughly two children a year since its inception.

“My parents come from a very poor background so without coming here I never would have gotten an education,” said Bobson Bangura, a former inmate who was released last year after scoring top marks in his exams. He and Joseph Gbla, another former inmate who scored just as high on his test, are now enrolled in secondary school, living together in a one-room apartment paid for by Karim Mansary, the facility’s longest-serving volunteer.

Mansary has been at the Approved School for six years and was eventually given his own room at the facility by Rogers’ predecessor so he wouldn’t have to worry about paying rent elsewhere. He does contract work for Prison Watch in the afternoons to pay for Joseph and Bobson’s rent and school fees.

“You want to do everything for these kids, because so often they have nobody else, but there is only so much you can do,” Mansary said. “You think of them like your children, which also hurts when you can’t help everybody. I’m happy to help [Bobson and Joseph] but they’ll have to find their own way when they reach university level.”

While some, like Bobson and Joseph, leave juvenile detention with newfound opportunity, they are the exception to the rule. For every child to come out the other side with an education, there are dozens more who are robbed of theirs by years of neglect and isolation, often ending up back in the system after their release. Children such as Sorie have have given up hope and Feika says the country is at risk of raising a “lost generation”.

“If we continue to criminalise our children, making life-long criminals out of the next generation, we will end up with a failed state,” Feika said. “The threat of war or conflict will always loom as long as we are denying children a place in society. Don’t be surprised if they one day want to reject it, given how it has rejected them.”

*The names of current inmates have been changed to protect their identities.

Source: Al Jazeera



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