Malawi has instituted reforms designed to help rehabilitate child criminals. Before last October, boys and men shared the same prisons. Today, reformers have separated the two and are offering the boys a chance to change the direction of the their lives. At all-boy prisons like Bvumbwe Juvenile Prison near Blantyre, jailed boys are learning carpentry, tinsmithing, bricklaying and tailoring. Some of the boys say the new skills could change their lives.
Bvumbwe is located about 25 kilometers east of the commercial capital, Blantyre. It is an abandoned old prison that the government has reconstructed; today, it holds about 104 young offenders. The juveniles incarcerated here are between 14 and 18 years of age and have committed various offenses ranging from theft to murder. Many have spent part of their sentence with adult inmates at Chichiri Prison in the heart of the city. Here, inmates can read or participate in tailoring, carpentry, tinsmithing, or bricklaying; Commissioner of Prisons Tobias Nowa says work is part of their rehabilitation.
“This is the government’s commitment in separating young offenders from adults. Formerly, we used to have young offenders in all other prisons like Chichiri, but today as we are talking, Bvumbwe is now a young offenders centre, which means all young offenders in the country are separated ...completely separate from the others. So as you can see, we are providing them with rehabilitation services like formal education, skills attainment and informal education.”
One of the juveniles at Bvumbwe is 16-year-old Wilson Jeremia:
“I was arrested for robbery. I, together with my friends broke into a shop and stole a lot of items. I was caught and my friends fled. I spent some months at Chichiri Prison before coming here. Life has changed a lot while here. I have learned farming. I also go for classes; I can see that my life has changed and I will no longer join those people who are always committing crime out there. I want to show them that there are alternatives to being a criminal.”
Mrs. Mary Phiri is Bvumbwe’s assistant superintendent and spoke about the positive impact of the daily rehabilitation services:
“These juveniles are able to make beds, desks, pails, and farming. They have grown a lot of maize this year. We treat them like our own children, and they are not difficult. Our observation is that poverty and the high levels of HIV/Aids have contributed to the rise in criminal offences among juveniles. They are being reformed and are expected to go back home as reformed and rehabilitated citizens.”
The young offenders here say life was worse at Chichiri, where they had been placed among adults. They say older men often beat or sexually abused them. However, pressure from the local press and international human rights organizations helped to change the prison system; the physical and mental abuses, coupled with poor prison conditions, led to the establishment of new facilities for boys. Meanwhile, women and girls still share the same prisons.
Mrs. Esmie Tembenu is the Child Justice Magistrate. She agrees that, due to the lack of an understanding about children’s rights, juveniles were being sent to adult prisons. But today things are different, and no juvenile is sentenced to share living quarters with adults.
“We do not sentence the children. What we do is just make an order based on the welfare and best interests of the child. (Today) we have several orders in accordance with section 16 of the Children and Young Persons Act. A child may be acquitted and discharged with various strong warnings against the repetition of the offence, he may be discharged and the court may impose additional conditions on the juvenile. The court may order the guardian parents of the juvenile to pay a fine…the court may place a juvenile at a reformatory centre and the court may order a juvenile to perform community service work. For your information, criminal responsibility according to our laws starts from seven. What I mean is that any child below seven years can not be held liable for an offence.”
The Malawi government is yet to find a permanent solution to some of the factors that can contribute to crime, including poverty and a poor education. However, life is looking brighter for young offenders who are learning new trades.
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