Juveniles escaping from a Chennai observation home, time to wake up to the rot in the system?

A few want to stay, because the real world is far too overwhelming.
Juveniles escaping from a Chennai observation home, time to wake up to the rot in the system?
Juveniles escaping from a Chennai observation home, time to wake up to the rot in the system?

“I want to go to the big jail,” says an inmate from Chennai’s Kellys observation home to a member of the Juvenile Justice Board. He is 14, and tired of the recreational activity that is more an escape than constructive - watching television. But it’s not just him - this sentiment is widespread among many of his friends, who are plonked onto small mats in the dormitory for petty crimes and a theft or two. 

For the many – and by this we mean, far too many – who just about fill the observation home to the brim, Puzhal jail is a dream, and possibly an escape to better food, facilities and friends. 

As for the rest, the dread that will follow on being released haunts them. Some who were part of rings and gangs, know that they will not be spared. Many have no family to go back to. The disownment by many families that follows their arrest is almost a formative part of life for delinquents. The veterans scoff at the newbies bawling about it. A few want to stay, because the real world is far too overwhelming.

The harsh reality of juvenile delinquents in observation homes

Two days ago, 34 of 73 inmates tried to escape the Kellys home. 14 of them couldn’t make it past the wall, but 10 did. Reportedly, 4 of the inmates slashed their wrists.

Despite the police’s glacial pace in taking control of the situation, a few of them returned to the home. But guards and wardens are used to this – it’s probably the 7th time they might have witnessed it over 5 years. Violence is regular at these homes, but tends to make it to papers if the hue and cry is public. It even startled the counsellor.

“These kids are extremely intelligent,” says a current Juvenile Justice member who spoke to TNM on the condition of anonymity. “But we cannot however, provide support for all of them. 73 is a large number. Delinquents from 4 other districts are housed at Kellys, and considering this demographic, shy children from small towns are pushed to interact with city boys in gangs. It never really ends well.” 

Overcrowding is a major issue. Vidya Shankar, a former member of the board, says the situation has improved, but still has a long way to go. “We’re slowly waking up to the rot in the system and using the funds we are getting to build more and better observation homes. In 2008, it was abysmal, almost like the home would spur a child to commit more crimes,” she says woefully. 

One counsellor is provided for 73 children. 10 IAS officers deputed to homes have been transferred over a period of 9 years – for many it’s just a stopgap. “A child with mild mental retardation had 14 cases of cycle theft slapped on him so the police could make token arrests. For years, the case will drag on and witnesses will turn hostile,” says Shankar. What happens when a child acts out -  violence, suicide attempts or even both? “The psych ward, which we hope will have more counsellors at some point,” says Shankar.

Where is the reformation in all of this? 

Shankar points to Singapore’s juvenile justice system as a successful model.

Introduced in 1997, the Guidance Programme targets youths aged between 10 and 19 who commit minor crimes - like theft. It comprises 21 sessions - both individual and group-based - which teach youth offenders to recognise their offence as a criminal act. For those involved in gangs and want to steer clear of them, there’s the Streetwise program. Wardens and officials are also provided training in communication skills. 

The success rate? The share of young offenders who commit another crime within three years of leaving these homes has dropped to 31.1 per cent for those released in 2009, the latest year for which data is available. 

Describing the scenes at Kellys observation home on Monday, the official said, "It was the picture of a riot, that's what it was like, with yelling and sobbing echoing across the walls of the home. If this doesn't get the government to notice, I don't know what will."

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