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Resurrection for child prisoners

March 27, 2013 · 

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Written by FR. SHAY CULLEN

The rescue from the danger, humiliation and fear of life behind bars was like a resurrection, the start of a new life for the hundreds of children released from the death-like experience of prison life and brought to an open plan youth home.


Misery, sadness and suicidal thoughts plague thousands of children behind bars. Consider the two small girls, Angelica aged 13 and Judith 14 (not their real names). They looked out from behind the bars of a Philippine jail in Metro Manila and tears welled up in their eyes when the Preda social worker asked what bad things happened to them and how long they had been there. ³Three months,² they said and no one came to help them. Prison life for small children is harsh and dangerous. It must be stopped. They had no change of clothes, toiletries and personal things they were totally impoverished and jailed like criminals.


Angelica who is somewhat mentally impaired is accused of stealing food and Judith is accused of kidnapping. She was duped by an adult who promised her money to bring a child by bus to another area of the city. How many more children are used by adults to break the law? The two children were in a cell that had bars only separating them from adult males who could reach through the bars and touch or grab them if they got close. (see photos www.preda.org, Never Again)


I felt guilty that I had not been able to discover them sooner during previous visits to that particular jail to rescue other minors from behind bars. I have since learned that the small girls were taken out of the cell during visits of outsiders like the Preda social workers and hidden away out of sight. The police and prosecutors are more at fault that the warden for jailing the children and violating the law protecting minors.


Like most cells this was without beds, toilet, chairs or any educational input or even entertainment. They were in utter isolation and boredom with adults around them ooking in day and night and half naked men reaching in through the bars of the adjoined cell. Preda Foundation has being taking children out of jails by legal action and has tried to end it for years. It is a nationwide problem and as many as 20,000 minors are put behind bars in any one year, according to some estimates.


We worked for many years with dedicated NGO¹s for the successful passing of the Juvenile Justice Bill in 2006 with the support of the International media, but it is not properly enforced. It was worse for children in the past. One Holy Week night some years ago I had a shocking jail visit in Olongapo where I found little 6-year-old Rosie crying for her mama and a dozen street children locked up in an Olongapo Jail lying hungry and exhausted on a dirty floor with no sanitation or food. Rosie was photographed holding a can of soda, the only nourishment she received in 24 hours. That same night the Preda social workers rescued Rosie and the other children from that filthy disease-infected cell.


I was once in another jail with a court order to release three boys and the stench was so horrible I could hardly stand it. The young boys had scabs all over their bodies, they had no water other than a single bucket among many to wash or flush the stinking hole in the floor that was the toilet. It was inhuman. There were mosquitoes and cockroaches and the heat was unbearable. It was a human oven that baked one¹s brains. I couldn¹t stand it for more than half an hour. Some of the boys were the jail slaves, washing the clothes of the guards, massaging the adult criminals or else they would get beaten.


Preda social works continue to find minors in sub-human conditions despite the passing of the Juvenile Justice Bill (RA 9344) in 2006 which says criminal liability can only be imposed on youths 15 years and above who acted illegally with discernment. Before the law they are still innocent until proven guilty, yet they are treated as if guilty.


Last Holy Thursday, Pope Francis went to Rome¹s juvenile prison and washed the feet of the youth offenders. They are still inside. I did the same at the Preda Boys Home. However they were not in jail anymore but in an open center in the countryside without guards, gates, walls or fences. They had been freed to reform and had hope and self-respect and a sense of dignity.


In the Preda home they receive encouragement, affirmation that they are good persons, have rights and value and that was a kind of resurrection for them. They now live in dignity and freedom from abuse and hardship. They are happy to stay voluntarily and look forward to a better life and education, the gift of a Happy Easter.


shaycullen@preda.org,
www.preda.org

Columnist

Email: shaycullen@preda.org

(Fr. Shay’s columns are published in The Manila Times, in publications in Ireland, the UK, Hong Kong, and on-line.)

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