15th May 2021
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Do South Sudan’s juvenile offenders reform after leaving the correctional centers?

Authors: Michael Daniel | Rosemary Wilfred | Koang Pal Chang | Published: Saturday, April 10, 2021

Boys at Wau juvenile facility for young offenders carry out farming duties. Credit|theguardian.com

There are currently more than 250 children in Juvenile center in Western Barh el Ghazel state, and Juba Central Prison in Central Equatoria state, this is according to the record obtained by Eye Radio from the South Sudan Prisons Service. 

Most of these young offenders –who are aged between 10 and 17 have been charged with various crimes such as murder, defilement, rape, theft and other petty offences such as trickery, pickpocketing and engaging in peer group fights.

In the capital Juba, the central prison has been holding Magai Matiop Ngong – who is said to be roughly 18 years old now, on a death row for years.

Magai was convicted at the age of 15 – for killing his cousin – which he insists was an accident.

According to Amnesty International, Magai took his father’s gun and fired it to the ground to scare the boy -as a way of stopping his cousin from fighting with another boy in the neighborhood. But a bullet reportedly rebounded and hit his cousin, who later died in the hospital.

With no legal representation, Magai, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death in November 2017.

However human rights bodies including Amnesty international have condemned Magai’s sentence, arguing that, he did not get a fair trial and that the death penalty is too harsh given that he was just 15 by the time he committed the offence.

The Human rights watchdog further challenged Magai’s death sentence saying it was against international human rights law and South Sudan’s transitional constitution which does not allow a child to be sentenced to death.

In July last year, South Sudan’s court of appeal repealed the death sentence imposed on Magai, noting that he was a child at the time of the crime.

The court then sent the case back to the High Court to rule on an appropriate sentence and his subsequent removal from death row on 29 July.

But Magai’s story is just the tip of the iceberg.

In Wau’s Juvenile Prison, which is currently holding about 64 young inmates, the director of the reformatory facility says about 6 of them have been convicted for murder as well.

Others, Major Hawa Masimino says, have committed offences such as rape or defilement, but most are petty criminals serving sentences of less than six months. Majority of them have been there more than once.

She says some of the children are homeless and they prefer to be in detention than in the streets where they have no food and where to sleep.

“The kids keep committing crimes because many times you find the kid has no parent here in Wau so they live in the market from 10:00am to 10:00 pm committing the same crime of theft and so they keep being arrested and brought back here. We have a boy here who has been convicted almost 7 times already,” said the director of the reformatory facility.

The newly established Gender Based Violence and Juvenile court in Juba that commenced its operation in December last year recently also found guilty of defilement, about 6 children aged 16 and 17 respectively.

South Sudan has only one juvenile reformatory center situated in Western Barh el-Ghazel’s state capital Wau.

This center was constructed with support from the UN Mission in South Sudan –UNMISS.

The center has a dormitory for the children, a playground, a clinic, livelihood training programs, counselling and other child-friendly social services.

Before then, child offenders were kept in adult prisons –which social workers and child protection officers say was detrimental to their reformation process.

According to the American Justice Policy Institute, the juvenile justice system was developed because children were subjected to unspeakable atrocities in adult jails, and were returned to society as hardened criminals.

It says, as the system developed, it became clear that housing young offenders and adult prisoners together was self-destructive and self-defeating.

In recent years, South Sudan also adopted the approach of keeping the juveniles separate from the adult offenders-providing them with an opportunity to reform from their criminal behavior, continue with school and learn new skills so as to return to society as responsible citizens.

However, the Wau Juvenile center – which is the only one of its kind in the country, lacks basic services to support the children adequately and help them rebuild their lives.

Major Hawa says the dormitory which was constructed to house only 45 occupants is now accommodating more than 70 children. Most of whom do not have beds or mattresses. The rooms do not have lights as well.

The head of the reformatory center says the facility also lacks an equipped clinic to provide health services for the children and no vehicle to address logistical challenges in case of emergencies.

“We have a room here for a clinic but we don’t have medicines in it and when a child is sick we have to run with him to the hospital.” Said Hawa.

However, with help from some humanitarian agencies, the center is able to provide counselling and livelihood training to the children in areas such as carpentry and joinery, wielding, tailoring, building, electrical installation among others.

According to the director of the reformatory facility, some of the children have been detained there more than once.

She attributes these to lack of parental care and homelessness.

Major Hawa says most of these children are street children, homeless and most of them were orphaned during the civil wars the country experienced in the past decade. Once released, the children fail to cope outside the facility forcing them to commit more crimes so as to be brought back in detention.

In addition, she says some children with homes and parents face neglect and lack of parental guidance. Thus making it difficult for them to reform from their criminal behavior.

“My emphasis is on the parents, when you give birth to a child take proper care of this child so that he or she can feel at home. Life has become difficult these days, many parents go out looking for food from morning till night, they don’t know what their kids are doing. This is the time for misbehavior. So parents should learn to balance and be responsible while working.” Hawa added.

Sebit – not his real name – is 15 year old. He is a former child convict. He says he served a 1 year sentence in the reformatory center in 2018 for indulging in violent fights.

“During the 12 months, I learnt my lesson, I won’t steal again. I was just 15, but now I am turning almost 20 years old. While there, I learnt woodwork which now helps me to make a living. I make chairs, tables, and beds, stools, anything out of wood and they pay me. I don’t have to steal now,” said Sebit.

Anna –not real name- is 19 year old. She was also convicted at the age of 16, for theft and served a 6 months term at the correctional facility. Anna says, she learnt her lesson and vowed never to steal again.

“Now I works in a restaurant, and sometimes I wash clothes and iron them for money. If I need anything, I work and save my money to buy it, I don’t have to steal,” said the 19 year old Anna.

A former child-offender, Mubarak William was sentenced to 10 years at the age of 15 in 2013 for a murder case. Mubarak’s sentence was reduced to 5 years after the court accepted his appeal. After his release, he returned to school.

The former child-offender says the prison has reformed his life. He said he is currently practicing carpentry and mechanical skills he learnt in prison. In addition, he is also practicing his music skills to educate his age mate to keep away from troubles on the streets.

John – not his real name – is 17 year old. John who has already spent 2 year in the juvenile prison, was convicted in 2019 for a murder.  He says when he was outside he used not to listen to his parents’ advice until he found himself in the prison.

John believes that the conditions in prison has changed his life. He currently using music to transform the life of children on the streets. He says he would like to finish school to achieve his dream of becoming a doctor.

Rosa Adam Saad, the deputy chairperson of women’s legal aid advocates in South Sudan, blamed the high rate of crimes among juveniles on alcohol and drugs abuses.

“I see from my perspective that there are extraneous habits. There is also a type of drug that is used by these children called 5, and alcohol abuses are some of the things that make them think higher than their ages, which causes violent crimes such as murder and rape. So in public, we should be awake and watch their behaviors.” Said Rosa.

54 year old Wani Joseph is a father of six. He blames the behavior of some of these children on the parents who he says have very little time to spend with their children to get to know them well, their peers and what the children do when out of home.

He says some parents do not reprimand their children when they make mistakes.

“These simple mistakes that children make on a daily basis, if not corrected, will become serious as they grow up. Children need to be told the difference between good and bad and they should know the consequences of their actions too,” Wani said.

41 year old Mary is a single mother who is raising three 3 teenagers. She says sometimes her children get out of control especially when they are with their peer groups.

“If you meet my 3 children at home sometimes, you may think they are angels, but once they get out of home and join their friends, they are uncontrollable – they don’t listen to me even. I only hear, your son did this, your daughter was fighting with so and so. It breaks my heart, but I will not stop talking to them,” Mary said.

The mother of three says parents have a big role to play in shaping the characters of their children.

She urged parents to not give up and continue to provide for their families, love the children and guide them as they grow up.

“Parents are powerful role models for teenagers. What you do and say guides your child’s behavior, attitudes and beliefs, now and in the long term… You have an important influence on your child’s values and long-term choices. The stronger your relationship with your child, the more influence you’ll have,” Mary advised.

Sarah Letio, a trained children’s counselor says parents should be encouraged to identify areas in which they are struggling to manage their children’s behavior, how they can work to motivate them and set appropriate boundaries.

Letio added that harsh parenting, which includes verbal or physical threats, frequent yelling, and beating, along with immediate negative consequences for a specific behavior, can lead to children having emotional and behavioral issues, such as aggressiveness.

“Don’t be surprised to hear one day that some children who are at loggerheads with their parents may commit certain offences just to embarrass their parents. Stubborn children like to contradict their parents. Such children need love and guidance and be to be told the consequences of their actions in the long run,” Letio said.

Celestina Joko Alfred is a social worker at reformatory school. She says most criminal cases committed by juveniles are related to murder, rape and theft, saying this show that families are not taking care of their children at home.

The primary goals of the juvenile justice system in South Sudan, in addition to maintaining public safety, are skill development, habilitation, rehabilitation, addressing treatment needs, and successful reintegration of youth into the community.

However, much as a good number of the former child-offenders reform and become responsible in their individual communities, some members of the public argued that the majority of children find it hard to cope with life thus is returning them old ways even as an adult.

Spoke to Eye Radio, Tadeo Igga, a member of public suggested more effective correctional programs to be introduced in the juvenile centers to help children to develop more livelihood skills, and encouraged parents to take their roles seriously, saying charity begins from home.

Tadeo Igga says; “In my opinion, the most effective way to rehabilitate a juvenile offender is schooling them, teaching them life skills, and let them understand the need to appreciate life and change their ways so they can live it how they want to.”

“Parents should also take full responsibility for their children or else the law should be enforced against them.” Igga added.

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