CYC-Online 75 APRIL 2005
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youth justice

Following the Morning Star: An integrated young offender program

Amanda Dissel

Morning Star, or lkhwezi Lomso, is the name chosen by a group of participants to represent their journey through the Integrated Youth Offender Program. This South African program represents their hopes and optimism, and is a symbol of their journey from darkness into the light.

The new White Paper on Correctional Services (2003) places rehabilitation at the core of the Departmentís activities. This new vision stresses the importance of partnerships with civil society in the implementation of programs, creating a fertile opportunity to develop, pilot and evaluate different approaches. In the past, the Department of Correctional Services and NGOs have expressed frustration at the lack of coordination in services that are made available, particularly to young people in youth offender institutions. Often the programs that are available are short-term and ad hoc. A young person may attend one life-skills program, for example, and then attend no other developmental program during his five-year sentence. On the other hand, a young person may attend many programs during that time, some of which substantially duplicate the skills he has already learned, simply because he is interested in doing something positive with his time and applies for anything that comes his way. While neither approach is necessarily incorrect, it is not the best use of limited resources and time.

Responding to these needs, a group of NGOs in Johannesburg came together to try and develop a system for integrating the different services that were offered in prison. The network developed a framework that is being piloted in Boksburg Youth Centre during the second half of 2004. Organisations involved in the project are:

The Integrated Young Offender Program (IYOP) builds on the theory of risk and resilience. It aims to address the cognitive thinking, attitudes and behaviours that support criminal conduct by developing psychological and emotional resilience through developing a better understanding of the self, and building an authentic self-esteem and an internal locus of control. An important component of resilience is developing and building sustainable relationships. This is particularly true for young offenders, many of whom have experienced difficult relationships with family and other support members. Reconnecting with family members while in prison can offer them support, but can also help to ensure a smoother reintegration process when they are released. Developing positive relationships with the community is also dealt with through anger management and non-violence training.

Many of the young offenders enter into crime through the pathway of escalating drug and alcohol misuse, and many continue to use drugs while in prison. Substance abuse often contributes to the challenges of seeking employment, building stable relationships, and furthering their education. It is a key risk factor that is addressed through the IYOP program. In addition, given the high prevalence of sex, sexual violence and coercion in prison, and the associated risk of the spread of HIV and Aids, this is also tackled in the program through a lively set of drama workshops. Although the program doesnít teach specific job skills, it does incorporate a component on entrepreneurial skills training.

In terms of building resilience, the program aims to develop cognitive skills and new patterns of attitudes and behaviour. Through cooperation, and the building of the different skills and knowledge of the different partners, the project attempts to address this composite of needs.

Staff component
Since prison staff play a critical role in the day-to-day interaction and handling of inmates, it was believed that this program would be strengthened by developing staff buy-in. This has, in part, been achieved through regular meetings with prison management and the coordinator of social services in the prison. An additional component of the program offers training to prison staff in order to enhance their capacity to deal with young prisoners. The training consists of the following components:

So far, approximately 18 staff members have attended the training, and if time and budget allow, further training is scheduled with another staff group before the end of the year. Despite this, it appears that the program has been less successful in its communication with prison staff working in the sections, and not everyone is fully on board. The lesson learnt is that it is important to develop an effective communication strategy with all levels of staff.

The IYOP program was started in May this year with a group of 20 inmates of ages ranging from 18 to 21 years. The participants are serving medium-term sentences, and although an attempt was made to select inmates who would complete the entire program, several prisoners have been released or transferred. The program duration is eight months. The program is structured so as to provide continuity between different components while at the same time building and reinforcing lessons learned in prior sessions.

The organisations represented in the program, as well as the facilitators, meet monthly to discuss the participation and development of individual inmates, as well as overall program coordination and implementation. The prison is faced with staff shortages and other resource constraints that often impact on the program. Although members of the Department form part of the program steering committee, they have unfortunately been unable to attend any meetings thus far. Despite this, excellent cooperation has been achieved with the Boksburg prison management.

because this program is attempting a more structured, integrated approach to prison-based programs, it is important that it is properly monitored and evaluated. It is a relatively expensive and resource-intensive process, and so it should be determined whether it is feasible and sustainable in the long term. More important, however, is the need to determine whether this approach makes a meaningful contribution to the successful reintegration of prisoners. Because few prison interventions are properly evaluated, the program cannot compare its results against stand-alone programs.

An external evaluator was contracted to conduct the evaluation process from the outset. All participants were screened using cognitive and psychometric assessment tools with a view to excluding participants who may have serious personality disorders or who had such a low level of functioning as to be unable to benefit from the intervention. Participants were also asked to complete a base-line questionnaire dealing with their history, behaviours and attitudes. This will be re-administered at the end of the program and the results compared. The final evaluation will consist of a review of all these instruments, interviews with the participants and program partners, as well as a review of all the evaluations administered internally by those partners. It is hoped that the evaluation will provide some indicators for the future directions of this approach.

The way forward
the IYOP has recognised the need for ongoing support to participants once the formal workshop process is completed in November this year. The program is developing a peer support and educator role for the participants that remain in prison with the expectation that they will not only continue with their own development, but will also assist in change processes for other inmates in the prison. We hope to be able to continue this project in 2005 with another two groups of inmates, and with more intensive training of staff.

This feature: Dissel, A. (2004) Following the Morning Star: An integrated young offender program. Article 40, Vol.6 No.4, December 2004

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