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Story and photos by Gemma Handy

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Deplorable conditions at the country’s main penal institution for youngsters could soon be a thing of the past.

An extensive refurbishment to the Boys Training School in Willikies, which can hold 20 youngsters aged 12 to 18, is now well underway and is set for completion in June.

Improvements include fitting air-conditioning to make it more comfortable, along with new doors, windows and tamper-resistant features, and a new recreation room.

Activists had long chided the rundown state of the institution, and its counterproductive impact on young offenders. The building has been empty since the onset of the Covid pandemic with its handful of erstwhile residents currently being cared for at home.

Government hopes that creating a more conducive environment to rehabilitation for children who fall foul of the law will reap dividends in their future prospects.

The work is part of a major juvenile justice reform project (JJRP) being carried out across the Eastern Caribbean to help troubled youngsters stay on the straight and narrow and reach their full potential.

Local media were yesterday given a preview of the renovation being partly funded by international development agency USAID.

Minister of Social Transformation Dean Jonas said in addition to upgrading physical infrastructure, government was also working to boost the skillsets of the facility’s staff to ensure boys get the help they need.

“A lot of young men grow up without the parental support they need to stay on track and usually this is why they fall out,” he told Observer.

Jonas said substance abuse was a key reason youngsters find themselves at the institution.

“The work we are doing – as well as the counselling and educational services that the ministry is providing – is aimed at addressing that and we are hopeful that a lot of reform will be taking place.

“It will be very different from what we were doing before; we are working hard to improve the quality of the services we are offering.”

Permanent Secretary Sandra Joseph said, “We recognise that the boys we serve have an excellent contribution to make in terms of national development.

“We want to ensure through this initiative that they are given the opportunity to become productive citizens.”

The JJRP – underway across the OECS – has also seen child justice legislation updated with the aim of helping young offenders reintegrate into society. More than 200 children have also completed conflict resolution training.

Minister Jonas, who took over the social transformation portfolio in May last year, added, “This project will leave a very important mark on the young people of Antigua and Barbuda; we are expecting great things coming out of this.”