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Behind Closed Doors: Life Inside Juvenile Homes in West Africa

On a calm Saturday morning in June 2023, I met a multitude of young Children who had been sent far away from their families to serve time for various offences. It was at a juvenile centre in Abidjan, the commercial capital of Ivory Coast in West Africa.

I had gone in partnership with ‘Les Femmes en Mission pour le Développement’ (FEMDEV), a non-profit organisation dedicated to enhancing the potential of women, youth, and children. Our objective as a team was to establish a library within the juvenile centre to foster a reading culture among the children and also to provide important material resources. While I wanted to get a first-hand experience of life in these facilities, I was also keen to get answers to questions I have had for years about children being locked up. But first, what is a juvenile home or centre?

A Juvenile home, commonly known as a juvie or sometimes referred to as a correctional Facility, is meant to be a haven for minors who have been found guilty of committing offences. These facilities focus on character reformation and instilling positive habits in these young offenders, typically teenagers, to enable them to become valuable members of society. The primary goal is to equip them with the necessary skills and values for successful reintegration into their communities.

According to a 2019 report from UK-based criminal justice watchdog, Penal Reform International, at least 410,000 children are locked up in remand centres and prisons every year around the globe, with about 1,000,000 held in police custody every year. Many young offenders are taken into custody but not all of them end up at remand homes as offences can vary, hence the disparity in the figures.

Africa is of interest in this regard due to its high youth population, which is pegged at around 40 per cent according to Statista. With the gift of this multitude of bright young minds, the future of the continent is promising.

Many young people have, however, found themselves on the wrong side of the law for various reasons. Juvenile Homes abound in different countries across the continent to cater to those remanded among these young ones, but what is their fate in these correctional facilities? What goes on within the walls of these buildings meant to provide some form of guidance and purpose to these youths?

It was in my quest to find answers to these questions that I visited a correctional facility. Prior to my scheduled visit, discovering the existence of these homes piqued my curiosity and stirred deep discomfort within me.

As we stepped into the facility, we were greeted by an overpowering stench even though it was the facility’s designated sanitation day. The smell was so strong that it made me wonder if there was an exposed soak-away pit right in the middle of the premises. I struggled to breathe. Interestingly, as it was sanitation day at the facility, the kids were doing some laundry but we could not perceive the scent of any detergent or soap as it was overshadowed by the poignant smell. It was that bad.

At that moment, I became concerned about the children and how they endured staying at the facility with such an offensive odour. Perhaps they had grown accustomed to it, much like I eventually was able to.

As we went further into the remand home, I observed that the facility was massive, spanning the equivalent of four football pitches. When we finally met the kids, we saw over 100 children ranging from ages 10 to 17. However, some kids were unavailable as they were locked upstairs due to what the guards termed “serious conditions.” Those who were available to receive us were seated in a hall, eagerly waiting for us.

Beneath their eager demeanour, however, there was an evident sadness etched on their little faces. The enthusiasm was likely because they rarely received external visitors. According to the guards, some parents do not attempt to visit anymore, and have abandoned the children to their fate. Stressing how bad the situation was, the guard revealed that some parents had stopped taking their calls, while others had completely changed their contact details. In a particularly worrying case, a parent declared that they had relinquished their child to the government as a “gift.”

As we continued on our tour of the facility, it was easy to notice the poor living conditions of the kids. The windows were broken and were without curtains. The rooms were in a horrible state with worn out mattresses and makeshift beds. Many of the kids looked unkempt as they wore tattered clothes that could pass for rags. Some had terrible skin conditions, such as eczema and lesions that extended from their bodies to their scalps. Many of the kids had dry, pale skin.

Another source of huge concern was the unappealing quality of the food that the facility provided. Some of the kids who had yet to finish eating breakfast had their bowls with them and were scooping a white, dry substance into their mouths with their bare hands. Saying it was an eyesore would be putting it mildly, but it was evident that the majority were underfed as many of the kids looked malnourished.

I also observed with dismay the rampant bullying among the children. In one case, while sharing our refreshment packages with the children, I handed a pack over to a 17-year-old boy. He then proceeded to dump the items on a little boy who was about ten years old. The younger boy stretched out his trembling hands as he received the package. Another instance of bullying saw one of the older boys mandate a younger boy to stand beside him and hold out his jacket. The older boy was overbearing and carried himself like a gang leader of sorts. The younger boy followed him around frantically, with fear evident in his eyes. It seemed the guards were doing nothing to address this issue, leaving the younger children at the mercy of the ruthless older juveniles.

Curious to find out what the crimes of these kids were, we looked for the Head of the Facility for some answers but he was unavailable. We then asked one of the security officers. The officer, who seemed indifferent, revealed that the children were kept at the facility for various reasons, including murder, theft, drug trafficking, and flawed character. While some of the crimes committed justified being sent to a correctional facility, it was astonishing to hear that ‘bad character’ was listed as an offence that led some kids to the juvenile correctional facility. Even more shocking was that families willingly took their children to such a facility as punishment for bad behaviour. I observed in my conversation with the officers that while some of them maintained a calm demeanour, others seemed to channel their frustrations and anger towards the children, resorting to physical punishment for minor mistakes and other seemingly inexplicable reasons.

As we rounded up our tour and left the facility, a plethora of concerns rushed into my mind; first and foremost, this was meant to be a correctional facility, but what we witnessed fell way below expectations. Children who committed petty crimes such as theft or misdemeanour were mingled with those who had committed more severe offences and were often at the latter’s mercy. There was also the risk of them being easily influenced to pick up more dangerous habits to survive the harsh environment, which could be counterproductive to the rehabilitation efforts.

In a country where 59 per cent of its young population live in poverty, the living conditions of a Juvenile home meant to rehabilitate those on the wrong side of the law must be conducive. If no changes are made, this could end up being a ticking time bomb that shatters the future of the younger generation.

Following my first-hand encounter, I found myself shaken as the experience remained fresh in my memory and kept replaying like melodies of a forbidden song in my head. While contemplating viable solutions, I conversed with a resident, and to my astonishment, I discerned that he was totally oblivious to the concept of juvenile homes. This revelation served as a reminder of the broader lack of awareness that likely prevails among the city’s inhabitants and within African nations at large.

Other West African Countries

The Abidjan experience made me curious about the situation in other countries, prompting me to embark on research into the subject.

According to a report from Nigerian newspaper TheCable, some juvenile homes in Nigeria are not well attended to. In a particularly worrying scenario, a storm had blown away the roof of a facility in Gboko, Benue State, Nigeria. The sixteen children there were then crammed into a small room with only one toilet and bathroom. Such conditions can have adverse effects on their physical and mental health.

Taking a look at Ghana, the story is similar, as violent cases have been reported. The victims of such assaults are more likely to suffer from chronic adverse events such as anxiety, suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. Interestingly, many correctional centres in the country do not have mental health professionals to support mental health, according to Science Direct.

Still in Ghana, a study involving 41 juveniles from two different remand homes revealed a scarcity of education within the sample. The majority numbering 18 (43.9%) had only reached Primary School level, while 10 (24.4%) had never attended school. As the educational levels increased from Junior High to Senior High, the percentage of juveniles progressively declined, with 10 (24.4%) at the Junior High level and three (7.3%) at the Senior High level.

As the study above shows, many children in juvenile homes lack access to formal education which is a fundamental human right with far-reaching consequences. This lack of education can perpetuate cycles of poverty, limiting opportunities for both individuals and communities. Education not only enhances social skills and problem-solving abilities but also empowers children to engage in their communities and make positive contributions to society.

A Ray of Hope?

It’s not all a tale of gloom and sadness, though, as FEMDEV offered some assistance by donating bags of foodstuffs for the children. Also, the organisation has been trying to teach the children essential vocational skills in intermittent short programs. There was a garden outside the entrance, where the kids had planted vegetables, and a mini-poultry farm at the other end of the facility. They achieved this through their skill acquisition training in livestock farming courtesy of FEMDEV and its partners.

It is a similar story in various remand homes across West Africa as different NGOs and well meaning individuals sometimes try to assist the kids by donating food items or providing them with some form of education or training. In other cases, organisations provide mentorship to help the children improve their thinking capacity and quality of their lives.

While more still needs to be done, for the kids, all hope is not lost as there is a ray of sunshine gleaming somewhere.

The Need For Urgent Action

Generally, a lot needs to be done to ensure that a section of Africa’s priceless gift of a bright young population is nurtured correctly and not left to waste away. We all have our roles to play. Preventing children from getting sent to juvenile homes involves addressing various factors contributing to delinquent behaviour and providing support systems that promote healthy development. Parents should prioritise family planning to ensure that they can adequately care for their children. Poverty is a huge factor that leads young people into a life of crime. Also, parents must ensure that they play an active role in their children’s lives to the best of their ability. As Will Durant puts it, “the family is the nucleus of society.”

Investing in early childhood education and intervention programs can help to identify developmental issues at an early stage. A robust family support system can strengthen families through counselling, parental education, and support services, creating a more stable and nurturing environment for children. Ensuring that all children have access to quality education can equip them with essential life skills and opportunities for personal growth.

Creating recreational facilities, after-school programs, and community centres can give children productive outlets for their energy and keep them engaged in positive activities. Youth outreach programs offering counselling, life skills training, and recreational activities can give young people a sense of purpose and belonging while reducing the appeal of delinquent activities.

It is also important to provide education for the children on personal hygiene practices to inmates and staff. This includes proper handwashing techniques, respiratory hygiene, and overall cleanliness. Maintaining clean and functional bathroom facilities with working toilets, sinks, and showers should be a priority. Regular inspections should be conducted to address any plumbing or maintenance issues promptly.

This can be done in collaboration with local health authorities and experts to develop and implement effective sanitation and hygiene protocols based on current best practices. Improving sanitation practices in correctional facilities not only safeguards the health of those within the facility but also contributes to broader public health and safety. It promotes a more humane and dignified environment for inmates and helps prevent the spread of diseases within and beyond the facility.

Another critical aspect is addressing the issue of hunger in these facilities. Initiatives should be designed to provide nutritious meals and fruits regularly, ensuring no child goes hungry in these juvenile homes.

The governments in the various countries must equally pay more attention to the reform system, especially regarding juveniles. Advocating for policy reforms prioritising prevention over punishment and investing in community-based programs can redirect resources away from the juvenile justice system and toward proactive measures. It is commendable that the Nigerian government is already working towards reform that would better the state of juvenile prisons, according to a report by the Guardian.

In 1989, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children (UNCRC) was adopted by member nations as a legally-binding international agreement setting out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of every child, regardless of their race, religion or abilities. So far, 196 countries have adopted all 54 articles of the charter.

All nations that have adopted the UNCRC must ensure that they adhere to it at all times to ensure that rights of all children are protected. The fact that some children are remanded in Juvenile homes does not change the fact that they are entitled to the Child Rights Act as it is equal for all children. This aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which focuses on improving the standard of living for people around the world including children. By optimising this provision, we can work towards transforming juvenile homes in West Africa into places of growth, support, and opportunity, fostering the positive development of the children within them, and setting them on a path toward a brighter future.

By Hope Esegba

This post first appeared on Creebhills, please read the originial post: here

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Behind Closed Doors: Life Inside Juvenile Homes in West Africa


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