Children, like adults, can get embroiled in conflicts with the law. When juveniles commit criminal offences, they are placed in Juvenile Development Centres (JDC) rather than jails, where constructive counselling is supposed to be provided so that they realise their mistakes and come out of these centres better human beings. The reality of these JDCs, as perhaps one would expect, is pretty different.
The recent grisly murder of three young boys in the Jashore Juvenile Development Centre has brought into limelight the country's struggles with ensuring protection of child offenders in the so-called juvenile correction centres. Naeem Hossain, Parvez Hasan Rabbi and Rasel alias Sujon—three juvenile inmates of the Jashore JDC, along with some other inmates—were tortured by the officials and other inmates of the JDC so brutally that they succumbed to the injuries on the same day. Their mouths were stuffed with towels and hands were pulled out of the iron bars, while they were being beaten with cricket stumps, rods and sticks. The pain was so brutal that these boys were said to have fainted. And when they regained consciousness, they were subjected to a fresh round of beating. And why? According to media reports, apparently one of the boys—Hridoy, who also happens to be a barber—failed to comply with the correction centre's head of security Nur Islam's order to cut his hair, which led to two bouts of scuffles—the second leading to the death of the three juvenile inmates, triggering public wrath.
This, however, is not the first such incident of atrocity committed in a correction facility. Earlier, in 2011, an inmate was brutally murdered at a correction centre. And cases of suicide are not uncommon. In 2013, Monira Begum chose suicide over living at the Gazipur correction centre. Even as recently as 2019, a 15-year-old boy Noor Islam committed suicide in one of the centres. One can only imagine what circumstances lead to such desperate actions by these youths.
The pictures of the three JDC in the country that are now surfacing through media investigations tell us a lot about what happens behind the iron gates of these "correction" facilities.
These centres are no less of a prison than prisons for adults. These overcrowded places—according to media reports, these centres run at overcapacity, at times accommodating more than 900 inmates in 300 capacity facilities—are neither able to provide the children with adequate food and essentials, nor are they able to ensure satisfactory psychological counselling to address their emotional needs. Worst of all, these centres seem to be run by people who treat these juveniles as criminals and are prone to meting out harsh punishments, as happened on August 13 at the Jashore JDC.
An investigative report published by a local English daily suggests that these correction centres lack proper counselling teams or even proper doctors. For a long time, these centres were even lacking in instructors for physically or mentally challenged children. Due to lack of care, planning and supervision, neither proper counselling nor physiological training are provided to these children. And who are to be blamed for this? The local "caretakers" or the system that allows the appointment of sadistic, myopic and careless officials for the important task of caring for misguided children?
Given the realities, one might be pardoned for questioning the willingness of the concerned authorities to address the plight of child offenders. Why did it take the murder of three boys for the Ministry of Social Welfare to form a probe body to identify the criminals or even acknowledge the crime? When was the last time the concerned authorities paid visits to these JDCs to see for themselves how the misguided children of this nation are being "corrected" in the development centres? Perhaps the murder of one, or the occasional suicide of lone juveniles, could not generate enough public attention to engage them.
Children, especially the ones in their adolescence, can become derailed for various reasons. Last year, I wrote a column that took a closer look at the causes behind the growing problem of juvenile delinquency. While eliminating reasons that lead children to come into conflict with the law remains a priority for all; for the ones who are already on the wrong side of it, these correctional facilities can play a significant role in giving them a second chance at life.
Child psychologist Tarana Anis says that juvenile development centres are not only meant to help the derailed children and youth understand the mistakes they have made, the crimes they have committed, and enable them to correct their ways through psychological counselling. These centres are also supposed to explore the triggers that led them to commit crimes and address those factors. She said, "Adolescents can become engaged in criminal activities for many reasons, it is the responsibility of the correction facilities to understand case-by-case what pushed them to this path, help them overcome those triggers."
"In fact, if possible, child offenders should be allowed to stay in the comfort of their homes, amidst the love and care of their families. Clinical social workers can be engaged to provide them with psychological counselling and emotional support to help them rise above the challenges. Regular psychological monitoring combined with healthy physiological training can play an important role in enabling these children move forward in life, while living with their families. The idea is to allow these children to leave their past behind and move forward in life, not the other way round."
With regard to the individuals appointed in various roles in the JDCs, Tarana said, "Dealing with disturbed children can be an overwhelming task, even for child psychologists. The people who are being appointed in these important roles should have in-depth understanding about child psychology; or at least these individuals should be given regular training and counselling in handling traumatised children."
The responsibility for disturbed juveniles should not be left in the hands of sadistic individuals who take pleasure in inflicting pain on helpless children. These development centres have been established to correct the ways and world views of child offenders by providing them with psychological training, and integrate them into mainstream social and economic activities by providing them with skills development training, rather than breeding violence-hardened criminals, as the three JDCs in the country are currently doing.
While the concerned authorities are investigating the specific case at Jashore JDC, the higher authorities must now take a serious look into how these incidents of mismanagement and cruelty were allowed to continue for so long. Bangladesh, as one of the earliest signatories to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), is expected to be a model for many other countries to follow.
The country and its administration must do all it can to uphold the rights of its children. Offender or not, every children has the right to protection and care and under no circumstances should these be compromised. The culprits, not only in Jashore JDC, but in the form of a system that looks the other way, should be brought to justice for the gruesome murder of the three boys—for subjecting their wards to pain, trauma and cruelty.
Let's not forget, by allowing a situation where a child needs to be put in a JDC, we have already failed them as a society. The failure to ensure their basic safety at these JDCs is worse by many orders of magnitude.
For these delinquent youths, we have JDCs. What do we have for a delinquent society?
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem