The Jakarta Post
Playing for healing: Imprisoned children play together as part of their rehabilitation programs at a juvenile prison in Surakarta, Central Java. (-/Dian Sasmita)
Dian Sasmita’s personal experience with enduring physical and verbal abuse as a child was her motivation for establishing the Sahabat Kapas Foundation to help juvenile inmates in Surakarta, Central Java, most of who are victims, just like she once was.
Being locked up is hard, especially for children, because they are isolated from their families and friends, while they are also at risk of being assaulted behind bars and social stigmatization after their release.
Many overlook the emotional and psychological trauma, as well as the physical injuries, that inmates endure in juvenile detention centers. There is a general lack of awareness or recognition that juvenile inmates are victims of a complex set of circumstances, including bad parenting, childhood neglect and child abuse.
“We should pay attention to these children. We must respect their dignity,” said Dian.
For 10 years, Dian has been at the forefront of providing psychological support, self-development programs and skills training workshops for nearly 120 inmates at four juvenile prisons in Surakarta, Purworejo, Wonogiri and Klaten in Central Java.
Once a week, she and her volunteers visit the prisons to help the children.
“We don’t want to be their teacher or advisor. We just want to be their friend while they are in prison,” Dian said.
Sahabat Kapas Foundation was founded in 2009 to lend a compassionate ear that would listen to the problems of the incarcerated children, rather than try to find an immediate solution. The foundation offers them a space to articulate what has been affecting them, based on the premise that the answer lies within the children themselves.
“Their will to become a better person will slowly rise naturally from within,” said Dian.
Telling them about right and wrong was unnecessary, because they already knew deep in their hearts, she said. This awareness, however, sometimes "went into hiding", and her foundation's job was to bring it to the surface through a prescribed set of questions during the regular counseling sessions it provided.
The questions are formulated by the psychology majors who volunteer at Sahabat Kapas. They are also featured in the games created by the student volunteers majoring in sociology as a way to make the counseling sessions fun and to blur the lines between the volunteers and the juvenile detainees.
“The sociology students also formulate programs to make more people attuned to the rights of child prisoners,” said Dian.
Prior to founding Sahabat Kapas, Dian was a lawyer who often made prison visits. The idea to set up the foundation came to her in 2009, when she witnessed the distress of child prisoners.
When she spoke to them, she realized that the children were bored and stressed from the lack of activities and attention while they were in prison, especially attention from their families, who rarely visited them.
“They had been jailed for simple [crimes], like stealing sandals,” Dian recalled.
She brushed aside the fact that she was not a psychology graduate, because her main purpose was to be a friend to the child prisoners.
Dian said that child prisoners were largely victims of unhappy families. She felt called to help them because she was also once a victim of domestic violence as a child.
“Many ask me why I reveal the bad treatment that I experienced in the past. I tell them that this is part of my healing process,” she said.
What is important for Dian is that the child prisoners have access to holistic rehabilitation, something that could not be placed on just the counselors' shoulders because other parties also had a part to play.
Prison officers, for example, could contribute by treating child prisoners better, because they could find it more stressful behind bars.
Conditions are not ideal for child prisoners in Indonesia, but Dian has seen some progress over the last two years. The government has been open to feedback from non-governmental groups and have granted access to child prisoners to such groups, including Sahabat Kapas.
Dian recalled that Sri Puguh Budi Utami, the former director-general of correctional affairs at the Law and Human Rights Ministry, asked for her insights on the type of counseling that child prisoners needed and the skills that prison officers needed to be part of a counseling program.
Less than 10 percent of all child prisons in Indonesia offered counseling programs, said Dian.
“Because child prisons don’t have a psychologist, we offered to help train prison officers in counseling," she said. "Being a councilor does not require a psychology diploma. They must at least have an understanding of children’s rights, because they are the ones who take care of them in prison [as parental substitutes].”
Sahabat Kapas has also focused on social reintegration since 2018, providing continued psychosocial support and skills training to the children after their release.
Since listening is the main duty of the Sahabat Kapas volunteers, Dian always reminds them that they must be happy at heart when visiting the prisons to provide counseling sessions.
“If they are brokenhearted, they should not go. If they are unhappy, they will not be fully concentrated on listening [to the children],” she said.
Dian said the psychological support that the foundation had provided had contributed to making small but meaningful changes. The juvenile inmates, for example, were better able to control their emotions, instead of lashing out at the slightest provocation.
“These small changes are the start of big changes,” she said.
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