Unrest at Onderneeming
Just about a week ago, the New Opportunity Corps (NOC)—the juvenile detention facility at Onderneeming on the Essequibo Coast—saw a mass breakout of inmates followed by rampages that included fires and which carried over into the next day.
This week, 46 of the inmates between the ages of 14 and 18 years were charged with various offences relating to the mayhem at the facility. While 40 of the troubled youths were remanded to the facility, the other six were ordered to be held in police custody. It is likely that at the end of their trial, some of the older inmates could be sent to prison. Arson is a crime which carries a jail term.
Meanwhile, Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport Dr Frank Anthony, whose ministry is responsible for the administration of the NOC, has promised that an investigation would be held into what occurred at that facility last week.
It was reported during a meeting with Dr Anthony, inmates of the facility complained of abuse. Reports are that the students complained of being beaten frequently by the staff, while others stated that they would receive harsh punishments for committing offences at the institution. An investigation into the allegations of abuse is also to form part of the proposed enquiry.
It should be noted that the NOC is supposed to be a correctional facility, meaning that its focus ought to be the rehabilitation of the young people sent there. It should also be noted that the troubled youths sent to the NOC include runaways (children charged with wandering), as well as children who commit crimes. Children’s rights advocates have always commented on the wisdom of mixing the two groups of children, but given that it’s the only juvenile correctional facility in Guyana, Onderneeming is the ‘go to’ place for young people who step out of line.
The NOC, which houses children of both sexes, was set up during the 1970s and it replaced the ‘Boys’ School’ and ‘Girls’ School’ which previously obtained at the same location. With the name change, the facility was also revamped to focus more on educational and skills training activities for the young people incarcerated there. Over the years, there have been instances where inmates escaped, but not on the scale of last week’s breakout. There were also previous accusations of abuse made by inmates against those in authority at the NOC. The most publicized case was in 2005 when a female inmate accused three male employees of the facility of raping her. The men were charged but the charges were subsequently dismissed in the High Court after the virtual complainant, who was no longer at the facility when she made the allegation was a no-show for the trial.
But back to the recent events at Onderneeming: they are a clear indication that there is something terribly wrong at the NOC. This was not just a breakout by two or three inmates, but a mass escape by about a quarter of the facility’s inmates. Forty-six inmates of any facility do not just get up one day and decide to wage mayhem. Obviously, there was something festering – just waiting for the opportunity to blow.
One hopes that the committee which the ministry sets up to conduct the inquiry looks beyond the obvious, and that the accusations of abuse are thoroughly investigated. The average teenager can be a handful, much less one who is troubled. Put scores of them in proximity to each other and there are bound to be problems. Those given authority over them may at times be stretched to the end of their tether and it is in situations such as these that mistreatment can enter the equation. There should also be checks and balances in place and ways of monitoring the monitors, who are just as human as the rest of us and some of whom may be prone to abusing authority.
A facility which focuses on rehabilitating children with problems should not be a place which adds to them. Of course those children who would have been found guilty of committing crimes need firm handling, but none of them deserve to be treated inhumanely. The Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport must do all it can get to the bottom of whatever is simmering at Onderneeming and fix it.