News / Africa

Local Aid Groups Improve Life in Senegal’s Only Youth Prison

Amanda Fortier

Across many countries in Africa, thousands of young people are imprisoned without access to proper nutrition, education or healthcare, and once released, there is often little, if any, support to help them reform and reintegrate.  Aid groups are making headway to improve one youth detention center in Senegal, though the problems faced by administrators have not gone away.

Sixteen-year-old Cheikh Sow is crouching down before his teacher, reciting passages from the Koran.  It is Thursday morning, and Cheikh has just finished his morning religion class at Senegal’s only juvenile detention center, located in Dakar.


Cheikh - not his real name to protect his identity - was convicted of rape last September.  He is one of 68 boys between the ages of 13 and 18 imprisoned for crimes ranging from assault and marijuana possession to petty theft and vagrancy.  Every weekday morning, the boys have mandatory classes - physical education, literacy, math, religion and even a juice-making class.  They eat three meals a day, prepare their own lunch - giant aluminum bowls filled with rice and fish - and help grow vegetables in the garden next door.

Each detainee has his own bed in one of the five dormitories with a small television, a fan, shower and toilet, and has regular access to health check-ups onsite.  Apart from the wrought-iron bars on the tiny slits of windows and doors, Fort B, as the prison is commonly known, may be something of an anomaly among youth detention centers in Africa.

Rights of the Child

Africa is the only continent that has a region-specific charter, the African Charter on the Right and Welfare of the Child - stating that the main aim of imprisoning juvenile offenders should be reform and reintegration.  Despite this U.N. document, the reality for thousands of incarcerated young people in countries such as Kenya, Sierra Leone and South Africa, is quite different.  

According to the recent documentary, “10”, released by the African Child Policy Forum, thousands of children across the continent are imprisoned as young as 10, denied proper trials, forced to live in overcrowded cells, often with adult criminals, and denied proper nutrition, healthcare and education.  

Local NGO improves conditions

Huguette Lassort is the president of Cibiti, a local non-government organization that works to improve living conditions in Senegal’s prisons.  Lassort has visited countless prisons throughout West Africa and started working with the Fort B prison nearly 20 years ago, just before it became a prison strictly for minors and when the daily budget per prisoner was around 35 cents a day - nearly a quarter of what it is today.

Lassort says in the beginning, there was no direct contact between children and family members.  The kids slept on the floor, often without a blanket, and were sent handcuffed, on public transportation to a general court.

In 2008 a new director - the first magistrate to hold this post - took over Senegal’s penitentiary system.  Since then, gradual reforms have been taking place.  Each young offender is tried on Friday mornings before a youth court.  No boys under the age of 13 can be incarcerated, and the detention process within the prison itself has been reoriented from a focus on criminalization and punishment, to one invested in reform and reintegration.

Guards as teachers

Lassort says they have finally moved from a traditional system of security at the prison with repressive guards to a system where guards have become teachers.  They have changed the word from “guard” to “supervisor”, which has a stronger connotation.  Lassort says that now rather than hitting the kids when they misbehave, or physically isolating them, the guards try to talk to them and teach them, because punishment for many of these kids inevitably makes them come back with vengeance.

Many of the boys at Fort B come from the street or from the sub-region, including Guinea-Bissau and Gambia.  When the boys are taken into custody, the priority is to first locate their families and then to mediate any conflicts between them.

Bafode Drame is a social worker with the local NGO Village Pilote.  Twice a week he goes to Fort B to counsel the boys and facilitates reintegration with the family - when they can be located.

Drame says that the majority of time they are able to locate the boys’ families or guardians, but the trouble then becomes the follow-up once released from prison: most of the parents do not want to see the social workers anymore.  In Senegal, prison is taboo, says Drame.  When the children are incarcerated, the parents say they need them, but once they are released they often pretend that they do not know who they are.  It is like they do not need them any longer.  This makes their work very difficult.

Striking a balance

According to prison staff and Lassort, there have been instances of parents dropping their kids off at Fort B in hopes they will be better provided for there.

Lassort says it is important that the prison conditions are not too luxurious and also that the prisoners learn respect - for themselves, for each other and for where they live. Lassort says when they first put in 30 new beds, they were all destroyed in six months.  This may be a form of rebellion against the society or the people that put them in prison, says Lassort, so they need to be careful about the types of improvements in quality of life they make.  She asks, if they do not respect the materials we give them inside the prison, how can we expect them to respect other things once they leave?

The average length of jail time at Fort B is between a few months and a year.  Young female offenders are housed across the city in a separate room inside the women’s prison, where they continue to wait for their own detention center to be built.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs