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.