Current juvenile justice systems around the world are failing, both for youth themselves and for society. Asserting that the current system of imprisoning youths is more destructive than rehabilitative, Noa works to ensure that youths in conflict with the law get a real chance at reintegrating into society by tapping into their creativity. Next to offering an alternative solution, Noa also seeks to start the international conversation about juvenile reform – from imprisoning youths to engaging youths in alternative solutions that reform the juvenile justice systems around the world.
The New Idea
In dealing with youths who come in conflict with the law, national justice systems all over the world choose to solve the issue by throwing youths into prison. Often this is done without actual regard for their development, reformation, or a vision for their reintegration into society. With high recidivism rates evidencing the flaws of the system, Noa believes that the world needs to urgently rethink its definition of juvenile justice. Aware of the impact of detention on the youth, Noa has developed an alternative method that sees youth offenders as young people whose potential and creativity can serve as the means for them to get back into society.
Noa’s citizen-sector organization, Young in Prison (YiP), is an international network of YiP member organizations that work towards changing the way the world perceives juvenile justice and carries out juvenile reformation. Understanding that youth offenders are in a vital period of development in their lives, YiP works on giving real opportunities of rehabilitation and social reintegration.
YiP works at three levels: the child, the community, and the government. At the individual level, YiP member organizations implement a methodology centered on building the self-confidence and creativity of the youth, while providing the individual with the skills and support needed to rejoin society. Each YiP member organization adapts their methodology to fit local culture and youth interests. At the community level, Noa assembles community members and works with them to break down the stigma surrounding youth in prison. They ensure that offenders are welcomed back into society. At the government level, YiP works with municipal leadership to build supportive policy, and with the national government to raise awareness and contribute towards national policy-making. To bring forth much needed reform anchored on real needs, Noa involves the youth themselves in the dialogue with policy makers. Unlike other solutions in this space, Noa values the importance of working from the bottom-up, as well as top-down simultaneously. This dual approach encourages youths in prison to see themselves as part of the process of building a better system and to see prison officials as partners in their rehabilitative process.
YiP’s approach has shown great success, evidenced by the low recidivism rate of its participants. Out of the youth participating in YiP’s full pre and post-release programs, independent evaluations show that only 10 % fall back into crime, as opposed to estimated recidivism figures of 55% up to 95% depending per country.
YiP currently works in South Africa, Malawi, Colombia and the Netherlands. Within the international YiP network, each member organization shares best practices, and improvements they’ve made in their respective methodologies. With YiP’s vision of global change in the system of juvenile detention, YiP is working on expanding into East Africa, with pilots in Kenya already underway, and further international expansion planned for the future.
All over the world, children and youth in conflict with the law are behind bars at crucial stages in their human development. Spending their formative years in unfavorable conditions, these youths struggle to remain positive and are often pulled back into repeating offenses and wander farther from rebuilding their lives. Often, their crimes are minor – petty offenses for not carrying proper identification, loitering or begging. Around half of youth in prison are being remanded for crimes as small as stealing a chicken or a mobile phone. For these infractions, children can be detained pending trial during the most formative years of their development into adulthood. According to available data, children can comprise up to 2.5% of prison population, with the majority of the youth being detained awaiting trial for months or even years.
Making matters worse, there are rarely detention facilities specifically for the youth. As a result, children are subjected to the same living conditions and the same prison culture of older inmates. A survey of 27 African governments by Penal Reform International found that prisons operate on average at 141 percent of their intended capacity. In addition to being overcrowded, prisoners can spend up to 14 hours a day inside a cell with, at most, about 160 men. In these facilities, youths are exposed to violence and are susceptible to being abused. Older inmates force children to do work, with internal gangs using rape and HIV/AIDs transmission as a form of control. As a result, instead of the youth beginning a journey towards rehabilitation, the prison in itself becomes a factor for turning a child into a hardened criminal. Although there is little reliable data on recidivism rates, civil society estimates show that the rate is high, ranging from 55 percent in one country to 95 percent in another. Despite this knowledge, very little is being done by the state to reduce recidivism and provide youth with opportunities for real personal development.
Challenges continue as youths leave prison. The struggle to reintegrate into society often begins at home and is exacerbated by the stigma that comes with time spent in prison. Most youths return to homes without strong family support systems and/or communities without positive role models. And as they attempt to find a way of getting their life on the right track, they are met with strained interaction with members of the community, often leading to difficulty in getting employment.
With juvenile rehabilitation being a long pressing concern, different civil society organizations do exist to address the issue. However, even though there are organizations that provide direct services to current and released prisoners, the sector overall is characterized by fragmentation, a lack of coordination, and a lack of consensus on providing effective support. According to Noa, in order to make drastic and sustainable changes in the juvenile justice system, an international dialogue on and effort of the different effective, alternative methodologies is called for.
Being moved to action by the hopelessness of children she met in Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, South Africa, Noa was urged to act upon the social injustices against children and youth in prison. To truly enable youths to rebuild their lives, Noa established Young in Prison (YiP).
YiP is structured as an international network composed of member organizations operating in various countries, working specifically towards juvenile rehabilitation. Operating on the three levels of child, community, and government, member organizations of YiP create a total ecosystem favorable for the development of the youth.
At the center of Noa’s idea is a pivotal self-development model called Contributing Positively to Society (COPOSO). Developed by Noa, together with partners in South Africa, Malawi, and Colombia, COPOSO methodology seeks to provide youth with an avenue for self-expression and release. The method utilizes creativity as a means to reawaken their potential and allow the youth to recognize their ability to affect change in society later on.
For any change to happen, Noa recognizes that all must begin with the child. For only with internal positive change within the youth, will the child begin to see himself/herself differently: someone who can be a positive and productive member of society later on. With this in mind, YiP works with 12 to 20-year youths on improving their overall wellness, developing social-emotional intelligence and increasing their chances of employment post-detention. The COPOSO approach, uses creativity, art, and sports as means towards empowering the youths. Each local member organization then adapts their methodology to suit their specific cultural settings. For example, in Malawi the focus is on expression through music and dance, in Colombia, this is done through hip-hop, and in the Netherlands through gaming. Member organizations involve local personalities active in these areas of interest so that youths can have positive role models to look up to and aspire towards.
Apart from self-expression, YiP likewise introduces practical skills development to the youth. In this manner, as they leave prison, the youth are equipped to find a job or start a business and increase their chances for successful reintegration.
An external evaluation conducted through surveying current and past participants of YiP shows the model’s success. In this survey, youths have identified three key pillars: the positive attitude that exists within the organization and all those involved, the safe space created in the program for honesty and progression, and the well-supported transition from prison to society, ensuring that their growth does not stagnate upon release.
Mindful of the importance of a supportive and welcoming community, Noa works closely with members of society to make a smooth transition happen for the youth. With stigma being a serious barrier to reintegration, YiP works with crucial social units to modify and reshape thinking about former juvenile offenders. The organization works with parents and family members to break down negative stereotypes of these youth. YiP likewise works with schools near areas with an at-risk youth population and addresses stigma amongst teachers, administrators, and other students. Media partners that are popular in the community are also enlisted to help promote a more positive image of the youths.
Furthermore, YiP strives to pave the groundwork for youths to find work opportunities. In close cooperation with Pearson EdExcel, the COPOSO model has been certified as an Intermediate Vocational Education. This certification is acknowledged by employers all over the world, thereby paving the way for community businesses and other larger employers to offer internships and work placements for former offenders. As of last year, over 4000 COPOSA certificates were handed out to youths.
For a comprehensive ecosystem of support, Noa pursues social dialogue on the government level and with key players in the penal system. By engaging policymakers in a discussion about a reformed juvenile justice system, and talking to prison officers about reevaluating methods for handling youth in prison, Noa strives to lay the foundation for more child-friendly prison laws and better programs for youth in conflict with the law. To solidify this dialogue, Noa works to ensure that there are input and action from the ground-up. YiP Youth Ambassadors is a program that brings together former youth offenders and puts them in charge of representing this population and working internationally to share best practices with governments on working with youth in prison. Only with this dual approach can key players have the complete picture of the system, and be able to make informed decisions towards creating much needed changes.
In Noa’s work to alter the juvenile rehabilitation system, and reshape the social perception of children in conflict with the law, art has played a central role. At the start of YiP’s foundation, Noa was confronted with the difficulties of fundraising for operational costs, especially working on a controversial subject such as youth in prison. On top of this, Noa felt that something needed to be done to rehabilitate the negative image of imprisoned youth in the eyes of the public. YiP managed to address these two vital organizational needs through art. By holding activities like art exhibits, and its bi-annual auctions of artworks by well-known photographers and artists, YiP has been able to generate a sustainable source of income to fund its operations all the while channeling the attention of the community away from the negativity that surrounds former juvenile offenders. Noa took this model one step further with YiPArt Made Academy. In Malawi youth during detention can take workshops in practical skills like welding, and in business skills such as marketing and financial planning. After their release, the youth gets an opportunity to make art objects designed by Joep van Lieshout, a famous Dutch designer.
They enter into a nine-month training period to produce YiPArt while gaining valuable work experience. The YiPArt objects are then sold through YiPArts’ own network of museums and private design shops. In January 2015, YiP had solidified a major partnership with the world famous Rijksmuseum (Dutch National Museum.) The network of YiPArt friends, photographers and artists grow each year with YiP’s ability to successfully brand YiPArt as exclusive, but one that stands for a social purpose. All revenue from YiPArt is reinvested into the work of the organization.
Knowing that reform in the juvenile rehabilitation system is a global issue, Noa and the local YiP teams, from the start, wanted to develop a method that is easily adaptable to various cultural settings. They worked to test their methods in different contexts, making sure that the approach they were forming is one that transcends boundaries and is able to empower imprisoned youth in different cultures. YiP began its work in different developing countries and then moved on to the challenge of implementing the model in an environment with a high level of institutionalization and more resources (state money), but still with the same failing system for incarcerated youth. Work began in the Netherlands, Noa’s country of birth. Noa’s method of bringing proven results and methodologies from developing countries ‘back’ to the Netherlands, is now seen by the international development sector as proof that such ‘reverse’ approach can be successful. As evidence of the model’s success, YiP has been requested to deliver the program as a fee-for- service to Dutch youth institutions and youth in prisons from 2016 onwards.
Over the years, since its foundation, YiP has been able to reach out to around 3,000 youths a year. This figure counts youths in both of YiP’s pre-release and post-release programs. Out of the youth participating in YiP’s full pre and post-release programs, independent evaluations show that youth are able to find their way towards productive lives. About 50% get a job or start their own enterprise, 10% go back to school, 10% find an internship and only 10 % fall back into crime.
A little over 10 years since its inception, YiP is now working in five countries, including the Netherlands. At this time, Noa wants to focus on exchanging solutions to the issue of imprisoned youth and shift the international dialogue to discuss what we actually do to our youth by incarcerating them in their most formative years.
Noa is working on building an international movement that continues to seek solutions for advancing the rights of those vulnerable children in conflict with the law. Aiming to start this international dialogue on how to work with young people in prisons instead of against them, Noa hopes to grow YiP into YiPIN, Young in Prison International Network. YiPIN aims to change the system of youth imprisonment by exchanging experiences with other like-minded organizations working at a national level all around the globe, creating an international network to continue solution-finding and stimulate dialogue between stakeholders and nations on how to improve the dysfunctional system of youth behind bars.
Noa was already a social entrepreneur able to move people into action even as a kid. As a young girl, she mobilized other children at school to form a movement not to kill little animals, convince other kids to also support/adopt a child, and write letters to their neighbors they should not throw dirt on the street.
Noa’s mother was housewife, her father an artist. It was from her father that Noa got her strong sense of right and wrong, moreover, a strong awareness that the line that separates the two is often very thin.
Before Noa started her higher education as a social worker, she went to South Africa as an exchange student of the Waldorf school. She was meant to stay in school, but was intrigued by the racial division present in society. She asked the mother of her exchange family if she could join her to the small school in one of the townships. Sparked by this experience, Noa, decided to quit school and joined her foster mother in South Africa to run a small school in one of Cape Town’s townships. The fact that black African kids were implicitly, even explicitly taught they were bad, made a lasting impression on Noa.
For her internship, Noa chose to go back to Cape Town, South Africa, to help a local NGO that worked with street children. Through this internship, she started working with children in prison. When she saw how life in prison was for the youth, Noa knew that something had to be done about the social injustices children experience in prison. She started by offering an outlet for expression for the youth, organizing capoeira lessons together with a Brazilian friend. It was from this experience that Young in Prison was born.
Working with incarcerated children in a prison in Cape Town, made Noa quickly realize that in order to make substantial change, a more structured approach is required. She also became convinced that the basic assumption of imprisoning children was systematically wrong and worse: is present everywhere in the world.
Noa sees herself on a mission to reframe the way people look at children in conflict with the law. Instead of looking at them as something to get rid of, she wants people and society to see that the offense of the child or youth is actually pointing out that there are fundamental errors in the way our communities are functioning, and that there is a deficiency in the way psycho-social skills are nurtured. Noa believes this demands serious attention. Within a decade from now, Noa would like to have an impact in at least 50 countries and hopes that in 15 years, YiP’s approach will become a new global norm in safeguarding the rights of children in conflict with the law.
But Noa does not stop there. A firm believer in the value of learning, Noa is also looking at how effective learning takes place outside the formal education system. With her experience as a mother of two children, she quickly learns that great opportunities for learning happen through the community, specifically through the family. With this realization and her personal belief that more people should change their lifestyle and advocate for a more sustainable and fair world, she studies how parents can include sustainable thinking and act in the way children are raised. In her spare time, together with another mother, she started the initiative called ‘The Good Family’ -- an online community that inspires families to make the transition to a more sustainable lifestyle, helping parents incorporate ways of learning about sustainability into the way they raise their children. The ‘Good Family’ allows Noa to combine her own insights and experience as a mother with her rich experience in YiP, working with children and encouraging learning in informal settings.