–accused of abuse by inmates
Several of the staff members at the New Opportunity Corps (NOC) are insufficiently qualified for the posts they hold and not fully aware of their responsibilities; there are also claims of abuse of the institution’s teenaged inmates.
This is according to statements made to the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into the NOC, several of which this newspaper has been privy to.
The statements, dated January 2013, indicated that poor administration and inappropriate handling of the juveniles kept at the correctional facility might have nurtured the conditions that prompted the breakouts, rampages and fires in August 2012. The official findings of the CoI have yet to be released even as new allegations of abuse at NOC have surfaced. Among its Terms of Reference was to examine the culpability of the inmates involved and review existing arrangements and make recommendations to prevent any reoccurrences. It will also make recommendations as to the disciplinary actions to be taken against those found culpable and investigate such matters which in the opinion of the board to be considered relevant to the inquiry.
According to the transcripts of interviews conducted by the members of the CoI, Jagnarine Somwar served as NOC’s Centre Administrator during the incidents in 2012 and he retains that post today. This is despite his lack of experience and qualifications in running a facility which seeks to facilitate the reformation of juvenile delinquents.
Somwar told his interviewers that he began his career as a junior bookkeeper at GuySuCo before enlisting in GDF where he spent six years before being honorably discharged. He then dabbled in procurement and marketing with a private company before becoming a senior development officer of Region 3 in 2005.
Subsequently, in 2007, he was appointed Regional Executive Officer (REO) of Region 9, before his appointment as administrator of the Kuru Kuru Training Centre. In 2012 he was transferred to NOC.
Stabroek News understands that Somwar functioned as Centre Administrator at NOC without a Terms of Reference (TOR) throughout 2012, and was only given one around the time the CoI was launched in January of 2013. According to Somwar, of NOC’s 62 staff members only about ten per cent are trained for the roles to which they are appointed.
Somwar himself was said to be pursuing a psychology course at the American University of Peace Studies in 2013 as he sought to better qualify himself to take care of the many troubled juveniles at NOC. It is unclear if he completed the programme.
Meanwhile, Brian King, NOC’s Training Officer, has Certificates in Introduction to Sociology and Agriculture. It is also stated that he completed a sociology course through the Institute for Distance Education (IDCE).
In addition, he trained for three years with the National Service and the Youth Ministry, taught at the Riverstown Primary School for four years, and was pursuing a psychology programme at the University of Peace Studies at the time of the CoI.
Brian King also told the COI that he was not handed a job description when he started at NOC. Unlike Somwar though, he reportedly never received one. In the absence of a TOR to specify his responsibilities, Brian King said he worked with other persons who held his position, and asked them what their duties were. He has determined that his responsibilities include admission, documenting and processing entries, as well as ensuring discipline of the inmates.
However, Permanent Secretary (PS) of the Youth Ministry, Alfred King, while questioning the Training Officer suggested that he did not fully understand his role.
According to the documents, the PS told Brian King that there was no conscious effort on his part to understand the students. Which is what his role should be.
Brian King blamed this on a lack of background information. He said the information was supposed to be supplied by the police and the Human Services Ministry, but both entities failed to do so 35% to 40% of the time.
But the PS stressed that he had seen nothing to support Brian King’s claims of requests for help in dealing with troubled juveniles.
It was for this reason – minimum efforts to reform children – that Justice Winston Moore, who headed the five-member CoI’, referred to NOC as a “dumping ground.”
Brian King, like Somwar, lamented the inadequacies of NOC’s staff. “You have to remind them every day of their roles and functions. They are young and inexperienced. They get high tempered in dealing with the students and don’t understand the real causes of the child’s behaviour,” the documents quoted him as saying. “We just have persons with basic experience and who are here long enough but are now sending in sick leave. We are looking for persons with military backgrounds to try not to be forceful.”
He also lamented the poor security provisions, including the insufficient number of guards who are underequipped to fulfil their mandate, and who abandon their posts and run whenever the inmates get rowdy. The PS though, reminded him that he was a part of the team which runs NOC, and that “the failure of this institution over time is because of a weak team,” according to the documents.
Several of the children who were interviewed during the inquiry complained of various forms of abuse. “It was bad being there,” one juvenile who was there for wandering was quoted as saying in the documents. The young boy complained that police went into NOC at one point and proceeded to “beat everybody.” This incident, he said, happened in 2011. “The police came and beat everybody. This was last year. The boys tried playing with the staff lock and the staff told Sir King. They were picking it to go in and get stuff like soap powder. The police didn’t ask questions,” he was quoted as saying.
A 15-year-old who was sentenced to NOC for wandering told the CoI that he was taken to the Suddie Hospital after “Sir King” punched him in his mouth “five times,” the documents said. “The magistrate tell Sir King to stop beating us but he still beats us,” he added.
Another juvenile told the CoI, “the majority of the staff treat you good and some of them handle your rough.” He said some of the children were beaten with whips and pipes. “I got lashes for liming with senior boys who were smoking cigarettes,” he revealed, according to the documents.
One of the staff, Joseph Spencer, had told the CoI that some of the staff should have been fired. “I think we should remove some of the staff. If a staff has a problem with a student it is wrong for them to call the student and bump them up… There is a need for a lot of cooperation. There is a lot of favouritism of staff to student…. It is wrong to talk about a staff with a student. When you and the students get wrong the students will tell you what was said about you. This brings problems,” he was quoted as saying.
The report also contained testimony from NOC’s Administrative Manager, who stated that the security guards sometimes beat the children. “In the night there are a lot of security with sticks. Whenever the students break out in whatever way, they will attack them even though we give them a radio,” he had said.
There were also several complaints about the quality of the food at NOC, although several persons said they found nothing wrong with the food. Several juveniles said they had been served spoilt fish and chicken. “They have flies in food, when the stink fish comes the flies come around,” one child told the inquiry.
NOC’s kitchen Supervisor Jermeene Morrison, had told the COI that in 2012 there was spoilage of fish purchased from Georgetown.
The spoilage, she explained occurred because it was not unloaded until the day after it was brought. The fish, she said, had to be dumped. This reportedly happened on at least two occasions.
According to the documents, one young boy told the CoI: “The reason students did those things is because they want better life.” Another said, “They push people to temptation. If they give us comfort we will feel better.”