Friday, April 8, 2011

All for a cell phone

This morning I had an unexpected opportunity to speak with a boy who was recently released from a center for juvenile delinquents.

This particular center has posed a difficult problem for me and my colleagues here. It has a fearsome reputation: stories abound of poor conditions, malnourishment, and physical/sexual abuse. Naturally, I'm putting much of my time and energy into researching the laws applicable to the delinquents' center, since that's where the worst abuses are taking place. The center's administration, however, makes it impossible for me to actually speak with the children there. It's not that I would actually be barred. In fact, I've already twice interviewed the center's director, who actually described some abuses without so much as blushing. Nevertheless, the administration fears scrutiny. I'm told that if I were to question the children about the conditions of their detention, they would likely be harshly punished en masse and interrogated about my work.

That's why coming across this boy was such a stroke of luck. Now that he's been released, he has nothing more to fear from the center's staff, and there will be no consequences for any of the current residents. Here's what he told me, through a Malagasy interpreter (no names or places, per my boss's request).

He was arrested in February, charged with the theft of his cousin's cell phone. Just before his two-hour trial, he was able to speak with a lawyer for about ten to fifteen minutes, during which she asked him nothing about the facts of his case, but managed to ascertain that his family would be unable to pay her $200 fee. She stood at the start of his trial to let the magistrate know that she was "representing" him, but never said a word. The magistrate (who, in a civil-law system like Madagascar's, decides matters both of fact and law) asked him only one question before convicting: did he do it?

He was taken straight from the court to the delinquents' center. As soon as the gendarmes left, the guards, along with five trusted children, started breaking him in. First, they made him kneel on the tiles with his arms behind his head, chanting "I stole it, I stole it." Then they made him "count" the tiles in the room by kneeling on each one in turn to determine how many pushups he would have to do—150 tiles, 150 pushups. When he was done doing pushups they forced him to pose as if seated for about half an hour. When he fell down from fatigue, they made him resume the position, and kicked him in the backs of the knees. Finally, they took him to his dormitory.

The dormitories are even worse. Every night, between 6:00 PM and 6:00 AM, the boys are locked into the dorms and left there with no supervision. Most nights, there is at least one fight: boys get black eyes, bruises, split lips, and in one or two cases, broken arms. Generally, the boy told me, the guards laugh when they see boys emerge in the morning with bruises. Occasionally, however, they respond to the fights by punishing the entire group. All of their punishments are cruel: the boys are forced to somersault, walk in pushup positions on their knuckles, or crawl, military style, back and forth across concrete. The boy I spoke to had scars on his knuckles and elbows.

Individual boys suffer even more. They are forced to clear sewage from the center's filthy squat toilets with their bare hands. They are bastinadoed: made to kneel on hands and feet with their feet on a chair, soles facing upwards, and are beaten on the soles of their feet with a rubber truncheon whip from a car tire. In some cases they remain unable to walk for up to a week afterwards. The guards administer the bastinado so cruelly that often the boys' feet are swollen on both sides, as each stroke causes the tops of their feet to hit the wooden chair hard enough to cause bruises.

The food at the delinquents' center is woefully inadequate. Plain rice gruel is served for breakfast and dinner. Lunch is half a bowl of rice with some dried fish. I asked the boy to show me, by pouring water into a bowl, how much gruel they are allowed for breakfast and dinner. Here's how much he poured:
For the record, it came to about 110 ml, or just shy of half a cup. More telling, perhaps, was the effect on the boy. He told me that between February 11 and April 7, his weight dropped from 65 kg (143 lbs) to 51 kg (112 lbs)—imagine a sixteen-year-old boy dropping thirty pounds in two months!

From a purely legal perspective, this is really a rule of law problem. Madagascar's laws are good on paper, but the reality is bleak, as in Oscar Wilde's epigram: "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means." The law says that the boy should have been assisted by counsel during his first police interrogation—but he wasn't. The law requires the trial magistrate to ask questions to determine a child defendant's capacity for criminal responsibility—but he didn't. The law forbids the centers' staff from abusing the children—but they do—and requires them to feed the children 3,000 calories a day—but they don't. Under the law, the boy I spoke with should have faced some form of judicial admonishment, or at worst, been required to attend a few reeducation classes (assuming that he could have been convicted at all under proper procedures). Instead, he was summarily condemned to a months-long nightmare of abuse and deprivation—and all for a cell phone.

There are bright spots in all of this. I've met, and heard of, juvenile judges here who are marvelously diligent and caring. And it's possible that we can change things at the delinquents' center. The boy I spoke to was convinced that the center's director has no idea what's going on, thanks to her attitude of not-so-benign neglect. Of course, she already told me about the fights in the dormitories herself, but she may be unaware of the worst of the adult abuses. And even if she does, it's conceivable that she doesn't know that her center is on the wrong side of the law. There's no guaranteeing it, but by approaching the center's director through the right channels, it's possible that we can improve things. One can only hope.

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