Statement from “Operation Safe Space” on the Government Industrial School in Barbados
I started serving as the deputy chair of the Government Industrial School in Barbados (called the GIS), on the appointment of the Governor General and at the pleasure of the Minister responsible for reformatory schools on August 1, 2018. I must admit that although by that time I had been working with women and girls’ advocacy for just about 18 years I did not know much about the school. Every child who grows up in Barbados will get a threat or two about being sent to the school for being ‘own way’ but the truth is not many people who grow up in middle or upper class Barbados will ever interact with the institution.
The Government Industrial School was opened in 1883, forty-nine years after the abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean. The major purpose of the school was to house children who did not have parents or whose parents did not have the means to provide for their children. The Industrial Schools across the Caribbean extracted free labour from children in exchange for shelter and clothing. Flogging was allowed in the Schools and researcher, Dr. Shani Roper reported in a recent online forum on the topic of “Children in State Care” that records show that Barbados used the most flogging. The early 1900s saw the passage of two pieces of legislation – the Reformatory and Industrial Schools (1926) and the Juvenile Offenders Act (1936). These two pieces of legislation are still what govern the fate of children inside the juvenile justice system in 2022 Barbados. Despite the amendments to the Act over the years it is still archaic and ill-suited to govern a modern juvenile justice approach. It is gaps such as this in colonial repair that tempered my excitement about Barbados becoming a republic in November 2021. If you are still governing the future of Barbados under repressive, colonial law, what sense is it to expend money we borrowed from the International Monetary Fund on extravagant ceremony when the lives of the majority of Barbadians stand to see no improvement or material change?
A part of the responsibility of the Board of the School was to conduct inspections to ensure that all was well with the various stakeholders within the School. The fact that I had enough audacity to actually carry out the inspections was what eventually led to me losing the pleasure of the Minister and being fired in March 2021, for choosing to whistle blow publicly when I learnt of a 14-year-old girl resident being held naked in a cell under the conditions of solitary confinement. That incident was not where my journey with anomalies related to the children in care began. It was very much the ‘straw that broke donkey’s back’. When I started the tenure, the institution was run by an individual who was very proud to note that he had been at the institution since 1982. He had grown accustomed to commanding the institution with no reporting lines and no oversight from anyone. He was not required to write annual reports nor financial reports. Although the School is a government entity, it had never attracted the attention of the auditor general nor other state control mechanisms like the Child Care Board. The administration did not take kindly to my questioning or inspection. On my first visit to the Government Industrial School, I requested to see the breakfast service for the male residents of the School. Numerous people had reached out to me with complaints about how the children of the facility were being fed. That visit, breakfast was served around 8: 30 in the morning. I remember asking whether dry cereal and fruit was put out before that. I was told that it was not. The reason for my question was that the residents of the GIS would have been accustomed to a routine that required them to be at school by 8:30 in the morning. Many of them, unless they lived across the road from the school they attended would have had to be awake between 5:30 and 6:00 in the morning to catch school buses or other types of transportation to school. Having breakfast at 8:30 put them 3 hours behind their usual schedule.
The breakfast served at 8:30 consisted of canned spam fried with two or three crackers per boy and a cup of hot chocolate. There was no water offered, there was no fruit offered and there were no alternative food selections. The breakfast offered was not enough to satisfy teenaged boys. Trying to report what I had seen quickly brought me into another realization about the set up of the School. The Board of the Government Industrial School is advisory. That means that the Board only creates policy positions and passes those onto the Minister. Based on how government structures in the Caribbean work, the Minister would then have to pass the requests back to the permanent secretary of the Ministry who then instruct the senior administrative staff of the school. The cumbersome reporting lines are a part of the disconnect in policy and practice at the School.
The second major concern for me was the lack of educational and skills training programming at the School. The GIS is housed under the Ministry of Home Affairs, like the adult prison facility. There is no official document or memorandum of understanding establishing a status between the School and the Ministry of Education. There is no clear protocol on whether residents remain on the register of their substantive schools. The residents who can continue schooling in regular educational settings are not allowed to do so. There is an ad hoc programme of education offered by the staff of the GIS, but there is no curriculum developed, there are no individual educational plans created for the children and the ones who do complete Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) certification are largely self taught. In contravention of the rights of children deprived of their liberty, children who complete CXC while resident at the GIS have that printed on their certificates. In a small society like Barbados that is a branding that is hard to overcome in the job market.
A third frustration I quickly ran into was how the outdated and archaic frameworks for juvenile justice in Barbados were continuing to have negative impacts on children in the juvenile justice system. Although there were mounds of policy documents, reports about concerns that UNICEF had highlighted and commitments to update laws and change practices at the mistrial and governmental levels, the same abuse that was outlined by residents of the institution as far back as the 1980s and continued under my tenure as deputy chair. Simple actions had not been taken. For instance, UNICEF reclassified children in the juvenile justice system into children in conflict with the law and children in need of care. Given the history of the industrial schools in Barbados and the Caribbean, where children were criminalized at Emancipation or in the interwar years for not having family or for being poor, these two clear streams of children was an important step in terms of modernizing the juvenile justice system. It paved the way for the removal of old archaic charges such as wandering to be discarded. There are institutional abuses at both sections of the Government Industrial School but the charge of wandering has gender specific implications for girls.
Girls who were facing family instability, which often resulted from them being raped or molested were being charged for wandering as they tried to escape abuse. Girls who were in other state facilities and facing abuses who tried to escape these environments were charged with wandering. Girls who had started normal teenaged exploration of sex with boys in similar age category to them were charged with wandering. In many cases, these children only came into contact with the juvenile justice system because their parents reached out to the state apparatus to try to seek help and support for their children and not because they wanted them incarcerated. The parents were then overruled when their children were made wards of the court and although their parental rights were never officially revoked, they lost the ability to make medical decisions for their children, educational decisions or further decisions about legal outcomes. When girls are charged with wandering in Barbados, they are forced to have vaginal examinations as a part of the police investigation process. They are given the morning after pill as well. Even if attorneys at law representing the children or parents do not give consent, these measures are taken.
The juvenile justice system in Barbados is completely broken and despite the country having international obligations under conventions such as CEDAW, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Convention of Belém do Pará, old colonial practices persist. The Minister has a substantial amount of power to change the situation at the GIS. While the previous Minister has released some of the children in the facility in need of care, under the current Minister girls charged for wandering continue to be criminalized. Unless the region and the world pay attention, the children of Barbados will not be safe. Coloniality has killed out national conscience and only worldwide outrage can awaken change.