Dwynette Eversley, arrived at the Bordelais Correctional Facility, on the east coast of Saint Lucia, with few expectations. Having worked with young people for over ten years, she has learnt never to take their views for granted. Female inmates in the prison system are no different and she was eager to hear their first-hand accounts of prison life. The visit, she says, and the stories she heard made a lasting impression on her.
‘Entering Bordelais means leaving a piece of humanity behind. You surrender all possessions that mark your individuality at the door’, she told me. ‘The barbed wire and steel doors tell you your freedom ends here. But in the women’s cell there was still life’.
Tania (not her real name), was waiting for Dwynette in the dining room where sets of clean tables were arranged in neat rows in preparation for the evening meal. The 18-year-old was serving a six-year sentence for ‘causing death’ to a school girl and the prospect of release, in a few months’ time, was worrying her. Dwynette listened patiently as Tania’s story unfolded. She was incarcerated at 13, and spent the first three years of her sentence in a police cell because there were no juvenile facilities for female offenders under the age of 16. Three years later, she was moved to Bordelais where there are just seven women out of six hundred and sixteen inmates.
Dwynette learned that a lack of formal further education for women at Bordelais meant that the women, on their release, had no qualifications, training or skills. Tania believed her future on the outside looked bleak and she wasn’t the only one with concerns about life after prison. Another girl told Dwynette she needed help with the basic life-skills that would enable her to cope with the demands and challenges of everyday life. Others said they needed support to build their self-esteem.
In the car on the way back to the office, Dwynette was beginning to develop a possible pathway for young female inmates to gain skills that would lead to their rehabilitation in prison and enable a successful transition back into society. It would require a joint effort between the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Youth Development and Sport (MYDS). Her review of Saint Lucia’s National Youth Policy and its future development was taking shape.
Her brief as a Youth Policy Expert, under the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation (CFTC), was simple: to create a better environment that would allow young people to reach their full potential and contribute meaningfully to the development of the country.
Dwynette set out to hear the views of as many young people as possible. Throughout the twelve -month project, she and her team in the MYDS consulted with young people from all walks of life; from those in the health care system, to agricultural workers and young entrepreneurs.
‘I believe in people-centric processes. Policies are not static and so young people have to be part of whatever needs to be done’, she says.
To help her achieve her goal she set up a Youth Steering Committee and integrated previously marginalised groups such as juvenile prisoners and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer youth into the policy process. She set up consultations with ten out of fifteen different ministries in the government and organised training for forty young people, including unemployed youth.
With the support of volunteers, Dwynette also focused on gathering data and opinions in communities across the island. Tracey Dolcey, a young school teacher and former Vice-President of the National Youth Council joined the small army of volunteers.
‘I was responsible for conducting the survey in four zones in Gros Islet, which is in the north of the island. If you’re going to create policy, you need to ask the people it involves’, she explains. ‘We keep hearing that young people are the future but we must recognise that their opinions are valuable now’.
The results of the survey proved to be optimistic. Dwynette found an increasing number of young people reporting well-being and satisfaction with their life as well as wider economic participation. In general, the twelve-month CFTC assignment, which ended in July 2016, has yielded positive results. These include the approval of a new Social Sector Policy and an Education Sector Policy, as well as reforms to health and juvenile justice sectors.
“The most exciting part of working with and for young people on a new national youth policy is the opportunity to make it a living and breathing instrument of change,” says Dwynette.
She adds: “We awakened so much excitement, commitment and hope during the youth policy development process. If we could harness just a fraction of that into an action agenda for young people, think of the lives we would impact. Young people would begin to believe that they truly matter,”
Back at the Bordelais Correction Facility, Tania is preparing to leave prison. Perhaps her future will be bright after all.