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In Search of Light in the Hearts of Delinquent Juveniles

Tea Lobjanidze, an education specialist and writer, works at the Avchala juvenile prison. She is a member of the Education and Management Team (EMT), a group of professionals committed to formal and informal education of children. In an interview she gave to ISET-PI’s Lasha Lanchava, Ms. Lobjanidze tells about the realities faced by Georgia’s at-risk youths and her vision of how Georgia can improve the lot of its children.

Lasha Lanchava:  Dear Tea, we would like to thank you very much for finding the time to share your experience with us. We believe that rehabilitation of juvenile prisoners and their further adaptation to the society is a very important social problem.

Tea Lobjanidze: Thank you. Indeed, these are juvenile prisoners – 14-17 year old adolescents that happen to reside in a closed space, in isolation from the rest of the society, and it is very important to do whatever we can to facilitate their rehabilitation and social reintegration. 

LL: Let’s start from the beginning. What motivated you to take this seemingly risky and at the same time challenging job?

TL: The Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs (MoSYA) of Georgia announced a call for projects seeking to re-socialize juveniles. I wondered what could be done and came up with the idea to offer Value Education. Value Education is about themes such as respect, responsibility, cooperation, peace, love, tolerance, unity, happiness, and humility. These are life values that make us stronger and help us navigate throughout our social journey. Of course, I clearly saw the risk of working at a detention center. I was afraid that these boys, who have a prisoners’ mindset and who chose a criminal way of life, would laugh at me if started talking with them about respect, love, happiness etc. I thought that nobody would even come to the sessions (attendance in this program was totally voluntary). This was hugely challenging.

LL: Tell us about your first experience of working in a prison. Given the past history and current circumstances of juvenile offenders, one may expect their social capital to be totally depleted. It must have been very difficult for you to break the ice and gain their trust. True?

TL: Yes and no. The first time I entered the room, they seemed to question who I am, why I am there. The first two meetings were about gaining their trust and assuring them that I am in no way interested in spying on them. 

Then I remember how I spoke about respect during our first meeting. I asked them to write down their names on a piece of paper so as to introduce themselves and one characteristic of themselves for which they thought they might be liked by others. Nobody wanted to write anything. They said that they do not possess any good qualities, that nobody respects or likes them, and that they are ‘bad boys’. 

I interrupted them. You have a very good sense of humor, I told a boy sitting in the first row. He really did crack fun jokes during the first half an hour, and I explained that I liked him for that. Another boy had a great smile and I was quick to mention to him that many people would like him for that. In this way, I slowly gained their trust and they started to open up. In fact, it was a moment of self-discovery for them to learn they had something good for which they might be liked and the spark of light was still burning inside them. 

This has become my formula for success ever since. I go in the room with total respect and trust which are fully reciprocated. I signal no interest in their past but rather in them as fellow humans. When they enter the room, they leave all the past memories behind and start telling interesting stories, playing educational games, debating – things they would not normally do in their everyday prison routine. The whole classroom transforms into a happy place filled with positive energy. One can hear a lot of noise and laughter. Once it so happened that a security guard stepped in to double check if everything was all right. 

LL: What is the social structure of the group? Are they supportive and caring of each other? Are they cooperative as a group? 

TL:  I remember them playing a game which involved jumping over chairs across the classroom. When I conducted this very game in public school classrooms, they quickly became a mess. The class became uncontrollable: students were throwing chairs around and hurting themselves. Initially, I hesitated to play this game in Avchala but then decided to take the risk. To my surprise, they helped each other in case somebody stumbled and was at risk of falling. No chair was turned upside down. They completed the game in a very organized and cheerful manner. I also played with them and they have been extremely careful not to hurt me and their friends.

LL: What themes or circumstances do you see most often with all of your students? Are there any social or economic constants with Georgia’s at-risk youth? 

TL: Major risk factors pushing young kids towards crime are poverty and family violence. These are children coming from the lowest strata of the population. One child told me he was living in a garage, his family had no food, and he was subject to severe parental violence during every day family fights. Two kids passed national examination and wanted to acquire a university education. Yet, as one of them told me, his mother had no interest in hearing about his success. It is very rare that a kid from an average middle class family would end up in a rehabilitation facility.

LL: And then what about their future? What do they aspire to once they get out of prison? 

TL: These are incredibly talented kids. Perhaps because they had experienced so much hardship at an early stage in their lives, they are forced to devise coping strategies that would help them navigate through the complex social environment. They are very good in logical reasoning. As a part of the course, we worked on logical exercises and they were able to solve significantly more complex problems than public school kids of the same age.

They like painting and are typically very creative. For instance, I remember how they picked dandelion as a symbol of peace. When asked why, they explained that it is associated with breath and life, and when its seeds are blown off, they spread in all directions as peace ought to. A really brilliant idea!

There is enormous cognitive and artistic potential in these kids. It just needs to be channeled in the right directions. 

LL: If you compare these children in the beginning and now, what changes do you observe in their behavior?

TL: First of all they are becoming more social. Initially they are shy or reluctant to speak, but later they very actively participate in discussions. I also see them beginning to reflect on their inner self and increasingly appreciate the importance of social values. Another great achievement of the course is in raising their appreciation for discipline and patience. 

LL: Based on your interactions with these kids and the stories you hear from them, do you think we as a society can do more to prevent juvenile crime or at least make sure juvenile prisoners are successfully reintegrated in the society? 

TL: It is heartbreaking to see all these beautiful young boys locked up in a cell, especially at an age when one mostly craves for and appreciates freedom and having fun. As I told you before, many of them come from extremely disadvantaged social backgrounds. But what is most tragic is that having completed their term, many return to prison. Oftentimes, prison is the only place where they feel safe and at home.

I am sure we can do better as a society. A key social reintegration issue is employment. The government and the private sector must make a coordinated effort to offer juvenile offenders a real chance of getting a job when they are out of prison. This may be not sufficient, but in the absence of employment they are very likely to commit another crime and go back to prison. It is incredibly sad to see the enormous potential of these kids wasted.

Additionally, there is scope to review and modify our current legislation. I believe that age and social backgrounds of these kids are not given proper consideration when passing verdicts. Also, the risks of habitual relapse into crime are not correctly evaluated.

Finally, it is very important for our society in general to be less prejudiced towards juvenile offenders. They themselves anticipate the society to judge them harshly. However, when people outside think of them as very dangerous, their beliefs act like self-fulfilling prophecies. Such beliefs feed a vicious cycle of mutual distrust, leading these young ex-prisoners towards self-exclusion from the main stream of life. 

My work with these kids was extremely satisfying, both professionally and emotionally. For them to have a chance, the society at large must be better informed about the sorrow circumstances in which they have grown up. People also have to better understand their needs, their talents and aspirations. With a little bit of understanding and help, they have the potential to become legitimate members of the society, and get the energy to work harder and fulfill their dreams.

LL: And to wrap up, what was the most memorable moment during your long tenure in the juvenile prison?

TL: Perhaps my happiest moment was this year, when I met one of my former students. He greeted me warmly and was extremely generous towards me. As it happened, he successfully passed national university examinations and became a student. What a success story!

LL: Thank you very much Tea. We are sure our readers would appreciate your dedication. Are there any final comments you would like to make?

TL: I wanted to paint these kids as normal, innocent, charming and lovely as they are. They have all the necessary qualities for being good humans and good citizens. What matters is how we treat them and whether we accept them as worthy individuals. Respect and social inclusion is what they need as much as a fresh air.

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Friday, 16 April 2021

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