x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

'Kinder' prison halves reoffending

One of the country's largest youth jails has halved reoffending by concentrating on rehabilitation.

Inmates at Al Mafraq Juvenile Centre on their way to school. Classes at the centre run six days a week.
Inmates at Al Mafraq Juvenile Centre on their way to school. Classes at the centre run six days a week.

One of the country's largest youth jails has halved reoffending by concentrating on rehabilitation. Administrators at Al Mafraq Juvenile Centre say a fresh focus on education and pastoral care has substantially reduced the number of inmates going on to commit crimes on their release.

"It used to be about five per cent a year, now it's two-and-a-half per cent," said Lt Col Ibrahim al Marzooqi, head of the teenagers' prison. Last year, 357 Emirati boys and 241 expatriates were held at the jail. They were convicted of a range of offences from traffic violations to assault and sexual crimes. Lt Col al Marzooqi said the prison's new approach was designed to treat inmates with kindness and respect to discourage them from seeing themselves as hardened criminals.

"Once a boy is here we deal with him as if he did nothing outside," he said. "We're not looking at him in terms of his crime; we're looking at him as a human being." Al Mafraq is one of several prisons placing greater emphasis on rehabilitation. For example, Al Wathba Central Prison now regards rehabilitation programmes as a key part of its philosophy. Mona Mohammed Khouri, a prison psychiatrist specialising in the treatment of juveniles, sees every boy who is admitted to Al Mafraq at least once. The teenagers are often sent to prison before they have been formally sentenced, or before charges have been laid, and Ms Khouri's job is to build case studies, recommending the sentence and rehabilitation programme most appropriate to each case. The department in which she works is monitored by the Ministry of Social Affairs.

"The first time speaking with them is the most difficult; they don't trust me, they don't tell me anything," she said. "Usually they tell me the truth after three or four weeks." Sitting in a light blue shalwar kamiz, 17-year-old HA is earnest when he speaks. He has been convicted of a sexual offence and is undergoing rehabilitation. He said he hoped the process would allow him to repair his relationship with his father. "My father's not talking to me," he said. "I don't want him to be mad at me any more."

First, Ms Khouri asks the boys what life is like at home, how they feel about school, peers, siblings. During her conversations with them, she examines everything from what they say and how they say it to what their body language reveals. In developing her case studies, she aims to determine whether problems are family based or environmental. "I try to correct their beliefs with therapy, but first I need to see where they get their ideas from."

Once she has an idea of how to diagnose each boy, group or individual therapy follows as well as regular meetings with her. By the end, she said, she is able more often than not to develop positive relationships with the boys. Ms Khouri said boys convicted of sexual offences could be among the most difficult to deal with. Young men responsible for such crimes typically experience shame and are not always forthcoming about the details of what happened and how they feel about it. As is invariably the case with rehabilitation, the boys need to admit to their offending before progress is possible.

The rehabilitation programme for boys who have committed sexual offences involves intensive religious instruction, including one-to-one sessions with imams. Often families become involved in the process. The problem, Ms Khouri says, cannot be solved in weeks. But in time the boys realise what they've done is wrong and they don't reoffend. jhume@thenational.ae