x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Bringing boys back from the edge

The purpose of the Al Mafraq Juvenile Centre is to incarcerate boys who have broken the law but also rehabilitate the youths.

Afternoon sports activities at Al Mafraq Juvenile Center, located outside of Abu Dhabi in the Baniyas neighborhood.
Afternoon sports activities at Al Mafraq Juvenile Center, located outside of Abu Dhabi in the Baniyas neighborhood.

The teenage boys here have almost everything they could want: television, foosball tables, board games, gymnasiums, school every morning, a football field and even good food. They have most everything, in fact, but their freedom - and that is the point. Just on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, not far from the new Al Wathba Prison, Al Mafraq Juvenile Centre represents a radical departure from most prisons in the Middle East: its focus is on rehabilitation rather than punishment. More important, its apparent success has served as a model for the new Al Wathba prison nearby and, some experts hope, even prisons elsewhere in the region.

"The boys who come here are considered human beings first. We see them as victims, not criminals," says Maj Ibrahim Hassan Mohammed, who has worked at the centre for 10 years. "Our role at this facility is educational. We are not the ones to judge." The centre, which opened in 1996, is a temporary home to some of the region's youngest criminals. Ranging in age from 13 to 19 (although boys as young as eight have spent time here), the inmates have committed crimes including petty theft, driving without a licence, crossing borders illegally and rape.

However, the prisoners here would be considered lucky by just about anybody's standards. Guards here quip it is like a five-star hotel. They are joking, of course, but considering the fact they are talking about a prison, the comparison is hardly an exaggeration. The view may be uninspired - the centre is surrounded by high cement walls topped with barbed wire with nothing but sand and sand-coloured buildings between them - but Al Mafraq offers unheard of facilities, in addition to a school, psychological counselling, a gym and a focus on nurturing.

The boys, guarded 24 hours a day by unthreatening, unarmed police officers, are referred to as "students" by their keepers. Rehabilitation, the police say, is the mission at the facility, not punishment. The guards say the last thing they want to do is turn the boys, 55 per cent of whom are Emirati, into hardened criminals, then release them back into society. The relationship between the guards and the inmates appears positive. They joke with each other and conversations seem open and comfortable.

Maj Mohammed says while the boys are at Al Mafraq, the guards are their family and the relationship between them is a reflection of this. BM, 16, has just finished serving a five-month jail sentence. Still in prison when The National visited the centre, he says prison life does not bother him. "It's like a hotel here; I'm happy, not sad," he says. "We can play sport, watch TV, eat good food. It's prison, yes, but it's OK."

Chubby and friendly, he is wearing ripped jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap. He speaks good English. "I'm here because I had sex with my girlfriend," he says, then pauses, waiting for a reaction. "I drove her home late and her father was angry, so he reported me to the police." According to Maj Mohammed, however, the boy is the youngest of four men who raped a girl, 13, who had attempted to run away from home.

The youth court system in Abu Dhabi uses a combination of Sharia and secular law. Rape cases are particularly difficult to prove because the victim must find four witnesses to give evidence. BM is in jail because he confessed to the crime. BM says he liked the girl and she was his girlfriend, although he cannot say how long they had been in a relationship. When asked if the victim was also the girlfriend of the other three men, he drops his head. "OK, I am a bad person, that's why I'm here. But when I grow up, I want to be a good person. I want to be a pilot. I want to go to Canada."

He takes a deep breath and leans back in his hard wooden chair, rubbing his eyes. He says one of the most difficult experiences he has had in prison was the first phone call he made to his parents. His mother cried, he says, which upset him. There are currently 32 boys in the Al Mafraq Juvenile Centre. Each has his own tiny room equipped with a bed, toilet, a desk with the Quran and a small window, through which only a sliver of the sandy courtyard can be seen.

"We must give them their own rooms," Maj Mohammed says. "We don't want them to fight or have sex with each other." The day starts at 7.30am with breakfast and morning prayer. Academic studies commence shortly after and continue until lunch time. The boys study different subjects and are placed in classes according to their skill levels. The teachers agree that the students here are easier to teach than those in regular schools; without distractions, the boys are better able to concentrate. Upon completion of their academic studies, they are awarded certificates that count as credits in the regular school system.

Three o'clock in the afternoon is sport time, the most popular activity of the day. Today, they play football outside. Maj Ali al Bloushi, one of the prison guards, plays with one of the teams. He does not appear to mind their heckling and when he finally scores a goal, the boys run up to him and pat him on the back. Maj Mohammed says most of the boys have been charged with theft. In a country adamant it has no poverty, this theft, he says, is committed "for fun".

"In a typical case, the boys would steal a car, drive it around and then leave it somewhere," he says. "The saddest cases are where the boy comes from a poor family, usually not local, and they are arrested for begging." In many cases, a boy's progress continues to be monitored by the facility's social workers after he has served his time. In cases where the family environment is seen as encouraging criminal behaviour, parents are involved in counselling.

Maj Mohammed, who is educated in social work as well as policing, is passionate about his job and says there is no better feeling than knowing he has played a part in helping a young person to solve their problems. "But I also worry for my own kids," he says. "In here, we're seeing more violent crimes than we did 10 years ago. "If my son is late coming home, I worry. "Crime in the UAE is worse here and in Dubai and it's because of the open markets. People from many countries come here; they bring their habits, their customs. This definitely has an effect on crime.

"But our facility is a good one. The only thing that could make it better is if the guards wore plain clothes instead of this uniform." @Email:jhume@thenational.ae