Youthlab: "Luister naar jongeren, ook als ze fouten hebben gemaakt"

11 november 2015
By Esther Maagdenberg – Young in Prison

Friday October 16th Dutch policy makers, ex-offending youth, professionals and international innovators working on solutions for youth in conflict with the law gathered to get to exchange experiences and collaborate on developing their own ideas in the stakeholders lab. The Youthlab kicked off the day presenting their ideas of the ideal punishment from the perspective of former young offenders. 
“We have to listen to youth, also when they have made mistakes”, says Stephanie, a 26-year-old mother of two. Stephanie is one of 7 ex-offending youth presenting their ideas on how to change the correctional service in the Netherlands to reduce recidivism. The last 6 weeks they have used their experience with the system to design their ideal punishment. Head of Public Prosecution Herman Bolhaar, politician Marith Volp (PvdA) and director of juvenile prison Teilingereind Esther Overweter were present to hear these ideas and exchange ideas with the youth, in attendance of 80 policy makers and professionals working with youth in conflict with the law.

The youth underscore the need for a correctional system to intervene when the law has been broken, yet give ideas on how this can be done differently. Stefan says: “Important in punishment is reparation. Not through long punishment, but through the rehabilitation of the youth.” Dja explains trust is an issue in juvenile prisons: “My first times in prison didn’t help me because I could not be honest: I learned through experience that being honest brings me more trouble.” This, when trust is a key ingredient in creating the safe environment in which growth can take place. Dja continues: “I needed to be understood, that they looked at me instead of at the rules and protocols. I needed them to ask, what does Dja need?” Malcome underscores the need youngsters have for personal development: “I needed a chance at good education and to get to know myself better. I needed a  chance to become a better person.”

To the question what you needed when you first came to prison, Jer answered: “I had to find myself again. I needed the storm in my head to lay down.” Stefan said: “I needed peace and quiet and at the same time a kick in the butt.” Shailish underscored the difficulty youth have to open up and recognize they need help: “At first you think you don’t need anything, but really you need someone who has been in the situation you are in now. Stefanie adds: “You need someone who will tell you, prison is not a final destination. It will get better. Most of all, I needed to be listened to, by someone with perseverance. Even if you don't get through the first or third time, you can never give up trying.”

“In the ideal prison you have to earn everything you get.” Says Malcom, and Moreno adds: “To appreciate what you have.” Malcome continues: “In the ideal situation you would talk to your victim, because mutual understanding can take away the fear of the victim.” Stefan wants to reduce the seperation inside and outside prison: “We need to bring employers and other members of civil society in contact with young offenders while they are in prison, to avoid a big gap when they come out. The youngsters need to use their time in prison to prepare for a better life outside.”

Dja and Stephanie think punishment in phases is a good idea. They believe a punishment should be designed to motivate you to move forward. Dja: “In our ideal prison you can win things that are useful for rebuilding your life. Nowadays with good behavior you are given something like a Kinderbueno. In our ideal prison you win privileges that prepare you for an independent life outside. For example, you can move from prison to having your own room outside. There are still many rules you have to abide by living in these rooms, so it is not completely free. Yet you get a chance to prove yourself and practice.”

Esther Overweter reacted to the presentation with: “It made me quiet, i'm very impressed.” She further noticed that the youth are strikingly strict to themselves. She loved the idea of detention in phases, from completely locked up to more and more responsibility and independence. She wants more variety in forms of youth detention: “And we need to show more courage. We too get a second chance to do better!”

For me the biggest learning is that we have to take each other seriously, says Herman Bolhaar. We need to create opportunities for youth who show they want to do better. And we need professionals who dare to look further than the protocols, at the intention of the rules. He concluded that he would like to invite the youth to the Public Prosecution office to continue the conversation.

Marith Volp said she thought it was courageous the youth are showing their face and sharing their ideas in public. This can help reduce the fear of prison staff for the young offenders. Martith Volp: “The message is clear: we have to listen to the youth. To be continued, I invite the Youthlab to talk in parlement!”

Esther Overweter asks the Youthlab to become involved with Teylingereind through the youth advisory commission: “You said you needed a buddy with experiential knowledge when you came out of prison. I need one too. Who wants to become my buddy?”

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