Towards a better future : Reform of the juvenile justice system focuses on rehabilitation and reintegration
By Sarah Marcus for UNICEF Georgia
On a warm early spring day groups of teenage boys congregate outside a large, well-kept building: some are playing football, some table tennis, some are chatting, a couple are coming out of a church opposite the large building. They seem relaxed and friendly.
However, the reason these young 14-18 year-old boys are gathered here is that they have all come into conflict with the law and have been convicted and remanded in custody here at the Educational Establishment for Juveniles of the Penitentiary Department in the outskirts of Georgia’s capital Tbilisi.
Dealing with such young people is not straightforward. They come to the Educational Establishment for Juveniles of the Penitentiary Department with a variety of different personal problems and attitudes. Nonetheless, the focus here is on rehabilitation – on building the boys’ future while ensuring they understand the mistakes of their past.
‘Here we help the boys overcome their problems and feel part of society. We help them to recognise the mistakes they made. A mature person can carry out a crime, but the same act committed by a juvenile can only be a mistake,’ says Ramaz Kukushadze, director of the Educational Establishment for Juveniles of the Penitentiary Department, his words illuminating the Establishment’s progressive attitude towards juvenile offenders.
This is one of the institutions targeted in a two-year project aimed at transforming Georgia’s juvenile justice system launched in 2009 by the Government of Georgia, UNICEF and the European Union. The main partners of the project are the Ministry of Corrections and Legal Assistance, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Education and Science and various international organisations and local non-governmental organisations.
Intended to make the penitentiary and probation systems more focused on reintegration and to avoid unnecessary criminalisation of juveniles, the reform is one of the key priorities of UNICEF and the Government of Georgia’s Programme of Cooperation.
Training of professionals working in the penitentiary and probation systems has already been successfully implemented at the Educational Establishment for Juveniles of the Penitentiary Department and at Tbilisi’s Women’s Prison Number 5, the other institution targeted by the reform project, where four female juveniles are detained. All staff at both establishments has been trained specially in children’s rights and child sensitivity.
‘This is like one family,’ says the Educational Establishment for Juveniles of the Penitentiary Department director Kukushadze.
A special room here has been refurbished and fitted out as a site for vocational training, as has a corresponding room at the Women’s Prison.
The boys study hairdressing, web design, video editing, computer repair and animation, with the training carried out by local non-governmental organisation Abkhazeti Charity Humanitarian Centre. Staff of the Abkhazeti Centre also works at the Women’s Prison Number 5 and at the Tbilisi probation office – involvement of local non-governmental organisations in reintegration programmes is a key part of the reform.
‘I’m eager to learn, and I want to learn myself, no one forces me to. I have chosen computer repair, web design and animation. So, I’m doing everything a prisoner can do in prison,’ said one boy busy learning animation.
Another boy said that he wanted to learn computer skills at the Educational Establishment for Juveniles of the Penitentiary Department in order to pass the national exams and go to university to study computers. As well as the new vocational training, the academic education system at the Establishment has also been upgraded – all the boys study for their national exams and teachers from Tbilisi’s Ilia Chavchavadze State University teach here. One boy has already won a place at the University, something the staff shows considerable pride in.
In addition to training and education, the boys are guided in understanding their mistakes and how to avoid making them in future by teachers, church members, and non-governmental organization workers. Each boy gets an individual plan focused on rehabilitation and reintegration.
‘When I first arrived here the time dragged terribly, I didn’t know what to do before I learned that I could take the national exams. I really didn’t know how to kill time. Now I can use it for my own benefit,’ said one boy playing football in the yard.
‘If I could turn back time I would change one thing: I would not commit the mistake I committed. When I leave here, even if my salary is not enough it will not make me do something which would get me sent back here, I’ll live on what I make from my job,’ he continued.
The underage girls detained at the Women’s Prison Number 5 study hairdressing and dressmaking and now have a refurbished room equipped with computers where they do schoolwork and can spend free time.
In addition to training and education, another improvement is that the female juveniles have been separated from the adult prisoners, in line with international standards, and now have their own living space.
‘It’s good we have this room now. Before, when we lived with the other women, it was very difficult,’ said one girl, who went on to explain the emotional journey she has been on.
‘At first being here was a great shock to me. I thought I wouldn’t stand it. Of course, by and by I got relatively calm. I have great hopes and dream about changing my life. I’m very sorry about my mistakes,’ she said.
Strengthening alternatives to detention for juveniles is another vital part of the reform project. The juvenile probation system is being overhauled to increase the focus on child rights, reintegration and rehabilitation. Special rooms have been refurbished and equipped and programmes launched in the probation centres in Tbilisi, Rustavi, Batumi and Kutaisi. All probation officers working with children have been trained in children’s rights and child sensitivity.
Most of the children engaged in the restorative gesture programme at the Tbilisi Probation office speak in the group for the first time about offenses committed by them, about their feelings during and after this process. Through different tools they realize the impact of the crime on themselves and on people around. They start feeling compassion for other people. These changes that occur in each participant lead to the prevention of future crimes.
The atmosphere created during the group sessions and various activities: role plays, their recordings, open conversation about emotions help them better understand themselves; create sense of responsibility for the committed offenses. The programme helps the participants in psychological rehabilitation and social integration.
The young people’s rehabilitation is structured through a ‘one-week plan’, as explained by Marina Khitarishvili, specialist at the Probation office, who was hired as part of the reform project to work exclusively with juvenile probationers.
‘The plan is in the format of a diary. We plan together what a child should do in the course of one week. Then we check whether it has fulfilled, what has been achieved and what can be improved,’ she said.
‘Before attending these sessions I had never thought about my mistake, my offence. I thought that it was a regular thing to do, but now I realize what I should have guessed before. I find it easier to deal with people. I’m trying to regain respect and trust from my indirect victim. Group work has helped me to continue living as a normal person,’ said one young female probationer.
Due to the ongoing reform of the juvenile justice system, this girl is not the only young person in conflict with the law who is being helped to overcome the mistakes of her past and build a more positive future.