President David Granger has indicated that he has commenced a process to look at the early release of girls and boys housed at the New Opportunity Corps (NOC) at Onderneeming in the Pomeroon-Supenaam Region
(Region Two). The Head of State visited the facility on Friday to speak with the 85 young people, the majority of whom have been committed to the institution for wandering. He said that as part as an overall plan to ensure improvements to the physical conditions and the programmes offered, Government will in the short term be setting up criteria and a system to ensure that regular early release is an option for those who qualify.
In addition, the President said that Government, as it enters deliberations for the development of the 2018 National Budget, is looking to make interventions at the institution, which will ensure that the young people housed there will be rehabilitated and equipped with skills that will facilitate a smooth re-integration into society.
Accompanying the President on the visit was Minister of Education, Ms. Nicolette Henry, under whose purview the NOC falls. The Minister is tasked with ensuring that a system is implemented to allow for regular Presidential pardons, as currently there is no structure or methodology to allow for this to be properly considered. She said, “Once the criteria would be determined, on a case by case basis, and they would be satisfied by the students, there would be greater opportunities coming out of this to implement a system where there are more Presidential pardons.”
Further, the Minister said that efforts will be made to ensure that there are no unnecessary delays that hinder the delivery of basic services; that the period of sentence is equated to the misdemeanour committed by an offender and that rehabilitation programmes are effectively implemented.
President Granger emphasised that he remains focused on education and youth empowerment and reiterated that he strongly believes that children are better off in educational institutions rather than in incarceration or detention.
“Going to school is important for me and staying in school is important for me, and it is important for you too, because in whatever you do, you must be able to read, write, spell and count… You must be literate. We cannot build a country with illiterate persons, and that is why I want all of you to take your education seriously. It is my vision that you must get the best possible preparation for when you are ready to take over this country,” the President told the children.
Noting that education and skills training are important aspects of their rehabilitation, the Head of State said that he will be working with the Minister of Education to explore improvements in the delivery of education and training, extra-curricular activities and psychosocial support.
Speaking to the children after listening to their concerns, he said, “I have come to make some decisions on how we move forward in the NOC. I want to make the NOC better for the boys and girls here… We are going to look at all of your complaints, but the physical things we will try to get to you over the next fortnight. We will try to make sure your life is comfortable so when you leave here you will be better equipped to take your place in society,” Granger said.
The physical things that he referred to include television sets, sporting equipment and other items that allow for social engagements, during their leisure time. He also urged the children to start looking at their options for employment and enterprise, noting that there is significant profit in entrepreneurship, which can improve their lives in the long run.
Many of the children spoke passionately about their desire to become productive members of society, some with aspirations of becoming doctors, teachers, army officers and business owners. Many of the young people have been committed to the NOC for minor offences and come from difficult familial environments. The Head of State was visibly moved as some of the children cried as they told their stories to him. They spoke candidly about their experiences at the NOC, and while many of them expressed that being there has helped to them to see the need for them to change their behaviour, some of their comments illustrated the need for capacity building among staff members.
Minister Henry indicated that a 2016 report for an assessment conducted by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) flagged the professionalisation of the NOC as a key area for development. “It is the responsibility of the New Opportunity Corps to ensure that the students who are there are rehabilitated, so that they can contribute meaningfully to the society. In order to do that, you need to have the appropriate staff.”
The Minister explained that prior to mid-2015, the type of staff that the institution attracted was far from desirable or suitable.
“When I visited NOC and I looked at the skill set, the qualifications of the staff there, I recognised that most persons that were employed in the capacity to perform the various functions required were not in keeping with what the position required of them…These are children and they need love, they need parental care, and as the State, we are the parents of those children, and so if you are dealing with staff that are angry and a student that is angry, then you know what will happen,” she said.
The Minister disclosed that the Ministry has recently hired a psychosocial support staff member. Acknowledging that this, by itself, is not enough and recognising the overall deficiencies, Minister Henry requested and received support from United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for a consultant to conduct an assessment to identify critical and immediate areas for intervention so that the limited resources available can be more efficiently used.
“I do have that report in draft… and some of the key areas that were identified had to do with one; in terms of training for staff. It seems like every sector needed staff training and capacity building. This was identified as particularly important when it comes to the development of a careful process of orienting a new entrant, which takes into consideration each child’s specific needs.
All of this, the Minister said, forms part of the overall approach to improving the conditions at the institution. She added that a plan is being developed for the implementation of the overarching recommendations outlined in the report.
Work is being done to develop a strong reintegration system of the children, adequate psychosocial support, education and training. That report also recommended that extra-curricular activities be improved, particularly sports and music, both of which the Ministry has responsibility for. In this regard, she said that directors of Culture, of Youth and of Sport, will have to collaborate to strengthen the delivery of their respective programmes rather than operate in silos.
Meanwhile, Minister Henry explained that there are two levels of activity that take place at the NOC in terms of rehabilitation. One has to do with reforming their behaviour, which caused them to be sent to the facility in the first place and the second is geared at ensuring that that they received education and skills training such as carpentry and masonry among other skills that are required in the job market.
“More recently, perhaps in the last three months, we had worked to set up an IT [Information Technology] lab to ensure that all students, once being enrolled in NOC, would have been exposed to training in IT, because that is cross-cutting, and you pretty much would need IT skills in order to survive in any society, irrespective of what your trade would be. The other area and perhaps the more important reason why they are here, is because of deviant behaviour, and so there is a programme that is targeted to that, and that programme, you know, requires string disciplinary measures and regimentation and the likes. My own view is that that component really needs strengthening, and we have been working in order to strength and professionalise NOC,” Minister Henry said.
The Minister said that the President’s visit to the facility is a clear demonstration of his commitment to bring about changes that will have positive impacts on the lives of the youths who are housed there and that she expects the staff of the facility to examine their work ethic and improve their performance accordingly. “I know at the level of staffing, notwithstanding the current capacity, they obviously received the message that they would have to step it up,” she said.
The NOC is a detention facility for delinquents. It is governed by the Training Schools Act, which provides for the establishment of schools for the education, rehabilitation and vocational training for young offenders under the age of 18.
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