Freedom or the lack of it

On April 11 of 1945, Elie Wiesel, 16 and orphaned in the regime, stood liberated from the Buchenwald concentration camp by the U.S Third Army. In his 1999 speech, hosted by then-President Bill Clinton and First lady Hillary Clinton, he recalls the rage in the eyes of the soldiers who witnessed Hitler’s atrocities and how grateful he is for that rage. He says,

“Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own.”

The case of Cyntoia Brown:

Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story is a Netflix documentary on the life of a teenager in the throes of fate that eventually landed her life sentence. Cyntoia was a victim of her situation and society. In essence, her nature (inherited genetics) and nurture (learned experiences), didn’t stand a chance of normal life or it seemed so.

Cyntoia’s first psychiatry evaluation happened in incarceration despite circumstances that warranted such attention before her arrest. Her reckless impulses were attributed to the prognosis of fetal alcohol syndrome by an expert, hired by her pro-bono lawyers.

She was granted clemency after 15 years of imprisonment. Cyntoia emerged as a compassionate and responsible adult, patiently changing her adversaries into allies.

I had two questions by the end of this documentary, would Cyntoia’s life be different if not for prison? How are young offenders treated and processed under the law?

Netflix has sparingly edged into the crime itself but shed an introductory spotlight on the youth justice system and mental health services therein.
To summarise what I learnt through a few scholarly articles about Juvenile welfare, justice and therapeutic interventions :

  • In some countries(ex: Belgium, New Zealand), a ‘welfare’ model prevails, which focuses on the needs of the child, diagnosis, treatment and more informal procedures, whereas other countries(ex: UK, USA) favour a ‘justice’ model, which emphasises accountability, punishment and procedural formality.
  • Research shows that as many as 75% of youth offenders have a diagnosable mental health problem. Paradoxically, diagnosed disorders increased the further that youths were processed in the juvenile justice system.
  • Juvenile offenders are brought into adult prison and supposedly “scared” out of their delinquency through threats, bullying, and intimidation by inmates. It is called ‘Scared Straight’ and is a part of shock incarceration programs.
  • Up to 90% of juvenile offenders demonstrated language and communication skills below average causing low self-esteem and hampering group discussions (therapeutic interventions).
  • The most frequently cited barrier to providing mental services was that youths believed their problems would go away without getting any help.
  • Gender plays an important role in the receipt of mental health services. For instance, girls report mental health symptoms and are more willing to use psychiatric services than boys.
  • Therapies that have intense family involvement have reduced re-arrest rates by 50% and have a profound positive effect on a youth’s functioning.

To answer the question now, Cyntoia may not have received the multidimensional mental care if not for prison. Her biological and adoptive family were instrumental in turning her life around. Structure, support and safety made her a formidable person.

In the cocoon of our everyday lives, how many times have we read/heard about youth offenders? How quickly have we attributed those to socio-economic factors and dismissed it out of our caffeine-run brains? When will we, as a society, look at these fragile minds and the ordeal in them?

Most important of all, how will we help them?



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