“There’s life after prison”

’Rebirth Village’ is a reception center that gives a second chance to former prisoners who want to change their lives. In this article, former detainees relate their experiences, ideas and hopes. Spotlight on correspondents of the Permanent Forum on Extreme Poverty in the World.

In 1978, a prisoner, sentenced to death and put in detention for life at the prison in Kara, addressed the following request to Father Charles Cuenin, chaplin of the prison: “Father, during the past years that I’ve spent in prison, I’ve noticed that a lot of young people get out of prison but get sent back in very quickly. Because once a person has done time in Togo, as elsewhere in Africa, everyone is afraid of him. So he’s forced to go back to his friends in misfortune, and he ends up in prison again. Instead of providing us with much to eat, you could save money in order to create a center or a village for them.”

And so began the idea of creating a reception center to offer a second chance to ex-prisoners wanting to change their lives.

Founded in 1991, the association Rebirth Village (“Village Renaissance” in French) is a Togolese NGO in the Yao-Kopé village south of Sokopé. Its objective is the social reintegration of ex-prisoners aged 18 to 30 through three steps. The first step is a stay at the center, where each person follows an individualized program based on their past experience. This enables youth to draw their own lessons from their life experiences, to become aware of their past and their present, and to identify behaviors to adopt for their future. The “Reborn” youth then become “Trainees” with a training contract to follow their progress in all activity areas that will enable them to practice a profession and become “Reintegrated” into society. Through these steps, there really is “life after prison”.

A ’Reborn’ youth speaks : “Prison had destroyed the courage and hope within me.”

Bernard, 24 years old, explains: “After my prison terms, I decided to go to Rebirth Village in Yao-Kopé to start a new life. After a few months in the village, I learned to live in the community and to be more tolerant, thanks to the daily sharing that we’d do from Monday to Friday [a time of reading about the experiences of ’Reborn’ youth, enabling youth to draw their own lessons for life.] There is a big health clinic called ’Revival’. They sell medicine to the village community at affordable prices, and offer it free to ’Reborn’ youth. When we’re ill, we’re well cared for.”

Emile, 24 years old, states: “Prison had destroyed the courage and hope within me, but my stay at Rebirth Village has given them back to me. It’s all in the past now. I’m drawing lessons from my experiences and I think I can struggle to find a new beginning and a new job. I’d like to do a computer training course so that I can run a computer center one day.”

A ’Trainee’ now ’Reintegrated’ youth speaks: “Everything that happens to us can be turned into something positive, if you look at it the right way.”

Kossi, 26 years old, recounts his path from training to social reintegration: “I completed my six-month stay at Rebirth Village on January 18, 2008, and began a one-year training course in arc welding. To show Rebirth Village that I was doing my best to make it and get my welding degree, I offered my services to the coordinators of Rebirth Village. It was my way of contributing to the cost of my training. That’s how I ended up building a barbecue with an out-of-order concrete mixer for Rebirth Village. I want to give a piece of advice to my ’Reborn’ brothers: Life is courage. Everything that happens to us, even things that seem bad, can be turned into something positive, if you look at it the right way. Despite all the difficulties, I got my welding degree on February 22, 2009. I’m proud to have overcome all the obstacles.”

A facilitator speaks: “Human beings grow thanks to the trust we put in them.”

Moïse, a nurse at Rebirth Village, says: “A ’Reborn’ youth is an individual who has dignity just like any other person. He comes looking for this dignity at Rebirth Village. He needs it for the rest of his life. As a companion, I need to be conscious that it’s hard to restore this dignity, as if with a magic wand, in just six months time. So what can we do? Develop the ability to listen; understand and make ourselves understood; have an open, inquisitive attitude; don’t impose, but offer; help people become aware.

’Help people become aware.’ How many of us are conscious of the danger that all of humanity runs by leaving a part of the population unaware and oblivious? Isn’t it time for our solidarity to open other people’s minds as well?”

His colleague Jean, facilitator and head of the laboratory, explains: “From my past experiences with our ’Reborn’ brothers, I’ve noticed that their hope, and our hope, is that we’ll be trusted. Human beings grow thanks to the trust we put in them, and that they put in others. I believe that each day helps to build or to break us, depending on whether we choose life or death, to live with love or with hate. It’s up to us to make our own choice. Let’s choose life, love and trust, even if the path is narrow and rough. Let’s live life with hope.”

This article is made up of excerpts from Rebirth Village’s newsletter, “Réjouis-toi”, issues #18 and 19, and from information on their website.

To learn more about Rebirth Village and to subscribe to their newsletter in French, send an email through their website.

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