Duo in EPIC move to improve lives of youth in Sophia Detention Facility

Conceived with the goal of empowering youths who are in trouble with the law, Enhanced Potential to Inspire Change (EPIC)–Guyana, a recently formed non-governmental organization (NGO) is resolute in its efforts to advocate for the reform of juvenile justice system.

EPIC-Guyana was founded earlier this year by Brian Backer and Winston Martindale, who have spent the past months working to enrich the lives of youths housed at the Juvenile Detention Centre at Sophia.

In an interview with Stabroek News last week, Backer said he was known for his work with youth at a community level and he was approached by Commander of ‘A’ Division Clifton Hicken and encouraged to visit the Sophia centre and interact with the adolescents housed there.

Subsequent to his visit, Backer said, he managed to get Martindale involved and everything progressed from that point forward.

They believe the work they are doing would allow them to better advocate for the reform of the juvenile justice system, especially since the Juvenile Offender’s Bill is still in the drafting process.

Winston Martindale (left), Director of Child Care and Protection, Ann Greene (second, left), and Brian Backer (fourth, left) with administrators of the Juvenile Detention Facility at Sophia
Winston Martindale (left), Director of Child Care and Protection, Ann Greene (second, left), and Brian Backer (fourth, left) with administrators of the Juvenile Detention Facility at Sophia

Currently, they try to visit the centre several times a week to conduct interactive sessions with the youth there with special focus on anger management, conflict resolution, anti-bullying, and anti-suicide, all aimed at preparing them for life after the detention centre.

“It’s about mentoring the kids and setting goals and achieving the goals they set and showing them how to go from where they are to achieving those goals; we want them to know that though they may have made mistakes, it’s not the end of the world,” Backer related.

Just recently, EPIC-Guyana facilitated a visit by local songstress Jackie Jaxx, who engaged the youth in an empowerment session. At the conclusion of the visit, Jaxx accepted an invitation, extended to her by one of the youth at the facility, to return next month for the Christmas social at the centre.

According to Martindale, Jaxx was just one of the several persons they invite periodically to speak to the adolescents, but when there are no guests, the NGO continues to build on the rapport they have established with the youth.

“We have built a unique rapport with the kids there, in the sense that we are not there as authority figures, we are there to engage in normal conversations in which they open up a bit more to us. This allows us to help the administrators with useful information that may come to us, that they may otherwise not be aware of, simply because we are not seen as the system,” Backer stated.

“One of the things we always say is that these kids are not bad kids, they just made bad choices and that is primarily because of a lack of guidance,” he added.

Wandering

The NGO would like to see the abolition of wandering as a juvenile offence.

According to Backer, wandering accounts for the reason a large number of children are detained at the facility, especially the girls.

He went on to say that while some children spend but a few days at the facility, others are left to endure months there, which takes away from their right to an education.

“I have personally met kids there who would have cut school and have gotten locked up for wandering and then school restarts and they can’t go to school because they have been locked up… They can’t go to school because they are locked up for not going to school which makes no sense. They say wandering will be struck off the books, yet still, up to this past week they brought in children for wandering,” Backer said.

He added that a common factor among cases of wandering by girls is the incidence of abuse.

“… They have been abused and so they run from their abusers most times. But in the end, they get penalized for trying to save themselves from the abuse,” the co-founder said.

Meanwhile, Martindale expressed his belief that juveniles should not be locked up for non-violent crimes.

“I find it incredible that kids who are there for wandering, are sharing cells with others who have been accused of committing violent crimes. What happens to the psyche of a kid who is put in that environment? It does irreparable damage in my estimation… There has to be other interventions that the government can exercise to address whatever the issues are,” Martindale said.

“Our society has problems and when these problems hit young people, they have an oversized burden to deal with and some of these acts, crimes that they are locked up for are a culmination of failures from all levels, governmental failures, parenting, community failures and we put all of the responsibility on the child for those failures and what we’re hoping is that paradigm is shifted,” he added.

Backer continued, “We can’t fix juvenile crime if we continue to put wandering in that bracket of crime as the law defines it and that’s because all juvenile crime has some underlying social dysfunction. And unless they address the causes of that dysfunction that will always exist. If you come to me as a doctor with a hole in your leg and I put a Band-Aid on it, you won’t see the hole but you’ll still have a hole in your leg and that’s basically what the juvenile programme is like.”

First world standard

Looking to the future, the NGO hopes to establish a “first world standard” juvenile facility that would be better equipped to enrich the lives of alleged juvenile offenders if they are required to be institutionalized.

“We have sourced a few acres of land in a nice location and we would like to build a first world standard juvenile facility where intakes would be classified so you won’t have violent offenders with non-violent offenders,” Backer said.

An important feature of the facility would be access to a structured curriculum that would allow them to participate in educational classes while at the facility.

“Unless you can enrich these kids’ lives while they are there, you are sending them back to do exactly what they did before and so nothing would change,” Backer asserted.

At present, both Martindale and Backer feel that though they are administrators at the centre who are trying to work with the youth, not enough resources are available to facilitate such. In addition to this, the teens possess varied educational backgrounds; some are unable to read and write, while others are at grade standard and some are above grade standard. But with limited financial and human resources, not much can be done.

“This is a kind of situation where once you go into it and you see how solvable the issues are, because these are not heavy-lifts, these are not big deals, it’s little small things, but the persons for the most part who are able to fix these things may not even be aware that these issues actually exist,” Backer posited.

“The minute they come through the gate they are classified as troublemakers and the girls as whatever and they are not even treated as second class, they are treated as just disregarded. So their concerns, their needs and their wants, their fears, no one pays attention to that; they are just thrown in a corner and that’s it,” he added.

Concerns were also expressed over the lack of common areas that can be used by the juveniles as well as the longstanding issue of overcrowding at the facility.

“These kids are in cells, these are not dorms with fluffy mattresses; they are cells and there is solitary confinement when they misbehave. There is no common eating area. They eat in the cells… The facility was not designed to do what it’s supposed to. The design was punitive so there is no space really for rehabilitation,” Backer related.

At present, the facility has seven cells, which in the past, have housed as many as 36 teens at one time.

According to Martindale, this adds to the frustration felt by the teens at the facility.

“Five or six people in a cell is too much but that’s the way it is and the overcrowding adds to the frustration; they are teenagers and they have hormone issues, everyone wants to be big man or big woman and they are finding themselves at the same time so they have the frustrations of being there in the first place as well as all this pent-up energy because even though they are afforded some amount of recreation, it is not enough,” he related.

In the interim, the EPIC is working to develop a learning centre at the detention facility, where computers and other educational equipment will be provided. Additionally, they have also received an expression of interest from an outside party for the provision of a Math and English Language tutor. This plan of action has already been endorsed by the Ministry of Public Security, which the NGO had approached sometime back, Backer related.

But as plans are underway for this project, the duo welcomes new volunteers to join them in the work they do.

“We have members in Diaspora who aid with contributions but as far as the everyday office and logistics, Winston and I do that, anybody else assists in a way where they are volunteering their time and knowledge to get it done… Those who may not be familiar with the centre, I would suggest if possible they try to visit the facility and see in what way they can possibly offer some relief,” Backer said.

“The impact we have is limited by the resources available and those resources include people who can administer whatever the initiatives are. So we need all the help we can get, its one Guyana and we can’t do it alone,” added.

“We want to be a part of the solution, we don’t regard ourselves as taking ownership of anything, we just want to play our part, raise our voices and hope that persons are interested enough to help us and see what kind of impact we can have together,” Martindale offered.

Additional information on the work of EPIC-Guyana can be obtained through queries made via email at WinstonM@Epicguyana.org.  Or BrianB@Epicguyana.org.

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