Bringing them back to family, school and society
How UNICEF’s UPSHIFT programme helps juveniles in the Kosovo* justice for children system gain confidence and strength for their return to society
Burim has something to say. He stands to one side of the room and waits for the other boys to tell the visitor how the Open Education Correctional Center of Lipjan, Kosovo, has changed them for the better.
“This is like a school,” Burim’s friend, Naim, says. “People improve themselves here. We know what we will do when we are released.” Naim wants to open a barbershop.
Another friend, Agron, isn’t sure what he will do when he gets out, but he knows the experience at the Center has been a good one. “If a person is sufficiently smart, I don’t think he will miss anything from the outside here,” he says. “He can improve himself.”
Finally, when all the questions are exhausted and all the answers delivered, as everyone starts filing out of the room, Burim walks over and stands beside the visitor. He doesn’t want to talk about what he will do. He wants to talk about what he has become.
“I want to tell you that my anger is disappearing,” he says softly. “I have more patience now. I forgive people, and I don’t get provoked.” The visitor turns and looks him in the eye. Burim lowers his voice even more. “I didn’t listen to my parents as a child. I got angry at one word against me, and I would stab [with my knife]…. But now, when a guy provokes me, I keep calm. I don’t have time to stay in prison. I want to follow my dreams and make money.”
Getting a high school diploma
In order to enter the program at the Open Education Correctional Center of Lipjan (OECCL), young persons like Naim, Agron and Burim, who have been convicted of a crime and sentenced to time in a juvenile correctional center, must be reviewed by a panel. If their behavior has been exemplary and their progress marked on “resocialization” (a process in which a person learns new norms, values, and practices that aid in their transition from one social status to another), they are transferred to the OECCL.
The OECCL offers courses, such as math, science and history, that are taught by professional staff and regular teachers. In fact, the school is a branch of the Lipjan public school system and gives the same high school diploma as the public schools. The students also participate in sports and field trips, as in a regular school.
“Judges and prosecutors said it’s impossible, what we did in Lipjan,” says Lulzim Beqiri, Director, Department for European Integration and Policy Coordination in the Ministry of Justice. “They said the juveniles would run away.” But they don’t run away. They learn. And they gain confidence in themselves.
Part of the confidence-building for the young people is in gaining new working skills, and the OECCL features a programme that meets the need efficiently. It’s called UPSHIFT, and it offers vocational training in areas such as IT, sewing, barbering, graphic design and cooking. The programme is developed and funded by UNICEF and grants a diploma issued by the Ministry of Social Welfare.
“UPSHIFT is important to juveniles here,” says Fitim Berbatovci, Deputy Director of OECCL. “The training keeps them dynamic and equips them with skills to socialize and reintegrate after they leave the facility. They feel more relaxed and resilient. They learn how they can have success in the world.”
Afrim Ibrahimi, Child Protection Officer at UNICEF in Kosovo, adds that UPSHIFT is a key factor in lowering recidivism, or relapse into their previous criminal behavior, among juveniles. “It gives them the vocational skills they will need to feel successful in the world,” he says.
Lulzim Beqiri, Director of the Department for European Integration and Policy Coordination in the Ministry of Justice, is one of UPSHIFT’s biggest fans. He says, “We find the juveniles are behaving better. We have less juvenile crime than before.”
Juvenile justice reform
During the past 12 years, UNICEF has worked with the European Union to support reforms in its juvenile justice system. UNICEF has made efforts, for example, to ensure that juvenile justice reform is based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child and to build the capacity of judges, prosecutors, correctional and probations staff, lawyers and police to deal positively with young people in trouble.But UNICEF has also worked hard to develop UPSHIFT in more and more countries. Since UPSHIFT was designed and launched in Kosovo in 2014, it has been used with youth and adolescents , children with disabilities and school dropouts, as well as children in conflict with the law. It is now in active use in more than 20 countries.
Bringing juveniles back
At the Ministry of Justice in Kosovo, Bajram Bujupi, General Director of the Kosovo Probation Service, sees the work being done at Lipjan as confirmation of the value of the practical and compassionate approach he and his colleagues take to juvenile justice. “We focus on how to keep juveniles safe and put them back in society,” he says. “Our main vision is to bring them back.”
As head of the Probation Service that oversees seven Regional Probational Centres in Kosovo, Bujupi is intent on convincing prosecutors and judges to try alternative measures instead of always resorting to prison time for juveniles. “I tell judges, try to have alternatives,” he says. “Juveniles get bad habits in prison; they learn crime. [We want to] bring them back to society, back to family and school.”
Burim, for one, is grateful for the chance to come back and start his life anew.
*All references to Kosovo should be understood to be in the context of United Nations Security Council resolution 1244 (1999).
The names of the child and father have been changed to protect the family.