By Elena Prieto
Manolo* moves like a fish in the water around the printing machines of the company where he has been working for the last three months. To his supervisors he is just another worker. However, the procedure followed to get him the job was different than for the rest of his co-workers. Manolo is one of 45 young men referred by the Court of Minors to the Assisted Freedom programme, through which young men with a first offence are not sent to jail nor deprived of their freedom. This printing business is one among many private companies collaborating with the programme. That is how this work relationship began, full of satisfactory moments for both parties.
Nobody complains about Manolo in the printing company. As a matter of fact, Jorge* has many words of praise for the work of this young man: “Look, this boy is so good! He works hard and is always willing to help out.” Manolo does not hesitate to show his satisfaction. “I am happy, I like working here. When my time in the programme is over, I will try to remain in this job. There will be no problem if everything continues to go well.” Proof of it is the raise in salary he was given as of last month.
It was a different story for Manolo some months ago. In those days, a Court of Minors found 17-year-old Manolo guilty of rape.
Despite the seriousness of the offence, being a minor saved him from doing time behind bars or being placed in a reformatory. The judge considered convenient to refer him to the Assisted Freedom Programme for a period of two years, an educational, social and individual measure carried out under the assistance and supervision of specialised staff with the objective to reincorporate the young man into society. “To give him guidance and help him assume his responsibilities so that he may learn to value his freedom”, explains Any de León, Chief of the Assisted Freedom section of the Social Welfare Secretariat, the entity coordinating this alternative measure.
The programme is born within the framework of the 1990 cooperation agreement with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Social Worker Secretariat.
Born into a new life
Nine months have gone by since the specialised staff from the programme presented to the judge an individual working plan for Manolo. De León emphasized that the plan took into account the young man’s social history while describing the way in which the plan and treatment will be addressed complemented with psychological help”.
Since then, the young man’s evolution has been incredible and he is conscious of it. “I didn’t want to do anything when I joined the programme. I didn’t like it, it was too boring and I was quite a rebel. I didn’t collaborate. I was summoned once again to court and was warned that if I didn’t follow the programme I would be transferred to
Las Gaviotas. It was a wake up call that made me realise that I wanted to change”, adds Manolo.
“My life has changed now. I go to work everyday and then back home, where my wife who is expecting our baby waits for me. “She encourages me to leave everything behind and to strive for a brand new life. Now, I am happy to be able to spend a lot of time with my family”, states Manolo with a smile that lights up his whole face.
The days when he was surrounded by members of Mara 18 are gone. Manolo joined the world of gangs when he was 14 years old. His face changes as he remembers those days. “There is a lot of suffering within the mara” are the few words he manages to utter. In fact, only five close friends still remain alive and free from his group. He still sees them around the neighbourhood but their relationship is not the same. “I say hello when I see them but we no longer spend time together. When I told them I wanted to “square out” (a term used to express the wish to get out of the Mara), they told me it was alright. Once in a while one of them may visit my house to enjoy PlayStation. He says he envies me and would also like to leave the mara, find a job and all that.”
Manolo’s friend waits for an opportunity to get out. Manolo knows he had his and took advantage of it with the support of staff from the Assisted Freedom Programme and especially from his family members who remained by his side during the crucial moments of the process. “I go to group therapy with my mother and my wife. I like these sessions because we play many games and also talk.” It is essential to encourage and strengthen family ties. In this regard, home visits take place to learn about his family and social environment. Therapy is provided to family members at group and individual level”, explains Any de León. Manolo will spend fifteen months under the Assisted Freedom programme. There’s still a lot of work to be done but now he knows for sure that he wants to lead a life within justice and freedom. His next goal is to learn to read and write while waiting for the arrival of his baby next month. He does not know whether it is a boy or a girl but looks forward to the surprise.