Giving a Second Chance to Juvenile Prisoners in South Sudan
12 June 2023
‘Life is better here than in the streets.’
Wau, South Sudan—For many young offenders in South Sudan, life in prison is a nightmare. They share prison space with adult inmates and live in the same prison conditions.
James* is a 17-year-old boy serving a prison sentence for rape. He is not in a typical prison environment but in a reformatory center.
The Wau Juvenile Reformatory Centre in Western Bahr El Ghazal state in north-western South Sudan was built by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and is the second only such facility in the country supported by the UN Country team to provide case management services such as mental health, recreational facilities, and family tracing and reunification.
It is now home to 94 child offenders, aged between 10 and 18 sentenced for all sorts of crimes. A few other children are imprisoned for charges of murder or rape. But most are petty criminals serving sentences of less than six months.
17-year-old James is one of them.
“This place is not like the real prison where life is hard to live,” James said, surrounded by his fellow prisoners turned friends.
“We have food, and we get an education. I was not in school but since I came here, I have started learning.”
James feels at home not only because of the food and education, but also the availability of other services.
“When the pastors come, we pray and read the Bible and understand the way of life according to the Bible. This has changed my life,” he added.
Before the Centre was built, children and adult offenders were crammed in the same prison where the children were likely to learn adult behaviors.
“When the Centre was opened, there were only 13 children of 13 to 14 years whose crimes were only theft. As years went by, the Centre now houses up to 94 children, 12 to 18 years. Seventy of them are convicted,” said the director of the Center, Lt. Col Fideli Hawa Massimino.
Under the South Sudan crime act, no child under sixteen years of age shall be sentenced to imprisonment. But in many parts of South Sudan children driven by poverty, violence, and hunger end up surrounded by the justice system.
16-year-old Edward * who was brought to the Juvenile Reformatory Center two years ago, serving a sentence for theft.
He was living on the streets of Wau after leaving home. Met with the harsh conditions, he joined a gang group and did all sorts of things to survive until he was caught stealing.
The Juvenile Reformatory Centre has given him a chance to becoming a better person.
“We are learning a lot of things, including education and psychosocial support on how to reform and be better people. I don’t take it as being in the prison, I feel it is a family where I can learn,” said the 16-year-old.
The director of Wau Juvenile Reformatory Centre says the center serves as an alternative and gives child offenders a chance to reform their lives and become better people in their communities.
“This is the only facility in our region that protects children and makes them understand and change from what they are doing,” Lt. Col. Hawa said.
“We support these children by taking those who are willing back to school, and we have also religious leaders who come and give them spiritual transformation. Now, other children are learning through vocational training that gives them skills in tailoring, building, mechanics, electricity, hairdressing, and other sectors,” she said.
“Children who came and joined the school from here, when they return home, they ask to continue going to school. That means they understand the importance of school and would want to continue.”
The United Nations Country team supports justice for children through case management services including mental health, and psychosocial support, referrals, family tracing, and reunification.