Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Juvenile Centers in Sana'a

Yesterday, Isabel and I accompanied the Democracy School and several Children Parliament members to three juvenile centers in Sana’a. Our trip was documented by Al-Jazeera for Children and only the cameraman was allowed to take photos inside the centers’ walls. On the way to the first juvenile center, one of my fellow employees from the Democracy School cautioned me to speak and take notes only in Arabic while inside the holding cells. This disclaimer was necessary because the center’s guards would not be fond of foreigners coming in and documenting everything, only to be written about later. I was also handed a survey with questions to ask the children, but I had already prepared many questions of my own that I wanted to be answered. Thus, I left the survey for the Children Parliament members to ask and went on to record the answers to my different questions. In order to write this post I am translating my Arabic notes back into English. Also, all information is directly from the mouths’ of the Yemeni children inside the three juvenile centers.

Before discussing my experiences inside the juvenile centers I first want to clarify how these centers differ from prisons. The juvenile centers only hold children temporarily until the verdict of their case has been rendered. However, based on my interviews this temporary timeframe may last as short as a week or as long as a year.

The first juvenile center was a short drive by bus from the Democracy School. This center cared for 30 Yemeni youth ranging in age from 15 to 18 years old. All 30 children were housed in one room. This room served as both the sleeping area, the walls lined with pillows, and eating area. Before speaking to any children in the holding room, one leading member of children’s parliament alerted the juveniles of our purpose and what organization we represented. Also, newspapers printed by the Democracy School were distributed to every child to read. According to my interviews with the youth here, their lives appeared very regimented. Every child woke up at 9:00a.m. and went to sleep by 10:00p.m. Three meals were served in a day and there was no time set aside for football or other games. The first youth I spoke with, whose name will remain anonymous, had been in the center for one month. Before being charged with a crime, he was a student in Sana’a. His brothers and sisters no longer live in Sana’a and his parents have both passed away; he is only 16 years old.

The second youth I sat down with was 16 years old and had been in the center for six months. Unlike the first case, his father, mother, and brothers all live in Sana’a. Thus, he at least has the opportunity to have guests on a regular basis, or know that there are people supporting his release from the outside. This interview, however, was cut short due to time constraints in the holding room. Upon leaving the center I asked if I could come back and speak with the children for a duration longer than 20 minutes. The Democracy School representative said that would unfortunately not be possible.

The third juvenile center resembled more of a prison than the first two juvenile centers. Several windows were blocked out with rusting, metal plates. Thus, sunlight was prevented from going through the hallway down to the holding cell. Also, the atmosphere was completely different than my two prior visits. The guards from the third center were very strict about our entrance and would not accept anything less than verbal authorization (our printed authorization was not valid in their eyes). Once acquiring authorization to enter, we were led into a small room and every door leading out was locked behind us. Thus, the only way to go was into hall leading down to the holding cell. The room resembled the other two holding cells, except this one had several bunk beds positioned on one side. Although the room appeared dreary it was truly a remarkable sight to see the children’s parliament interacting with the Yemeni juveniles. After a few minutes all the surveys were filled out and the cooperation on both sides of the coin was mutual. The juveniles knew that the Democracy School would try to further research into their charges to see whether or not they were valid.

I was not able to go to the fourth juvenile center because of Arabic class but I went to another juvenile center today with the Democracy School. According to one of the employees at my NGO, this juvenile center has teachers to instruct the students and also sets aside time for games and other fun activities. Either way, a holding cell is a holding cell and the fact that many children may have been convicted on false accusations is disturbing.

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