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Inside Georgia's first juvenile offender reform facility

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author John Smock
Publication Date 7 February 2003
Cite as EurasiaNet, Inside Georgia's first juvenile offender reform facility, 7 February 2003, available at: [accessed 26 November 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

A EurasiaNet Photo Essay by John Smock: 2/07/03

The Georgian government opened in May 2002 its first juvenile facility aimed at reforming young criminal offenders. Photographer John Smock recently visited the facility at Avchala, documenting the lives of the 23 boys who now call it home. EurasiaNet presents a selection of Smock's images in this photo essay.

Avchala is located about 20 miles (30 km) outside of Tbilisi, sitting not far from the Mtkvari River and up a dusty road patrolled by a surprising number of chickens and goats. The facility was once a military base and was converted at a cost of approximately $50,000. The ministry of justice generated the revenue for the renovation from fees for issuing passports and other identity documents.

From the outside, the facility looks like any small jail – high walls, barbed wire and watchtowers at the corners. To enter, one passes through first a solid metal outer door for an I.D. check and then a barred inner door. The heavy thud of its closing is as universal a sound as it is foreboding.

Once inside, the facility is notably different than other jails in Georgia. Only a little more than eight months old, the facility embodies a progressive plan to rehabilitate rather than simply incarcerate young criminals – a big step for Georgia, which only a few years ago was criticized internationally for its policies supporting the execution of juveniles found guilty of serious crimes.

The facility is designed to accommodate up to 150 youths. At present, the 23 inmates range in age from 11 to 17. Georgia's endemic poverty and widespread economic hardship have helped fuel an increase in juvenile crime, or at least its prosecution. Most Avchala inmates are petty thieves, the result of growing up in the streets and institutions. A few are guilty of more serious crimes – rape, murder, assaulting a police officer.

The boys are an odd, awkward bunch, capable of turning from a shyness and insecurity to violent outburst in only a moment. Older boys dominate younger in what seems a "Lord of the Flies" social order. Some move in inseparable partnerships, light-hearted and engaging. Others are more solitary, coiled in a brooding sort of rage.

When the weather is nice and they have free time, the boys linger and smoke cigarettes in small groups on the benches in the facility's courtyard or on its small soccer field. When it's colder they huddle over space heaters in the main building's dorm room or dining hall.

But much of their day is spent in classrooms, or in other structured activity. Though Avchala has guards like any other jail, its administrative staff is made up of men with backgrounds in social work and education rather than criminal justice. The boys – most had little or no formal education, prior to arrival at Avchala – attend school taught by volunteer teachers from the surrounding community. They also meet individually and in groups with two female therapists who have been assigned here three days a week by the state. A room has even been set aside for family, though visits are few.

Religion, too, plays a large role in the program's routine. Georgian Orthodox Christian icons are everywhere. Soon a small chapel will be built at a spot now marked only by a wooden cross.

Those who deal with the boys at Avchala list a variety of problems no different than those faced by boys in similar circumstances around the world – young psyches crippled by abuse, abandonment and little or no family or community support.

Whether this program will make a difference is yet unknown. The cycle of poverty and crime is often inalterable. The hope here is that education, therapy and a sense of belonging might give these boys a chance. But already foreign NGO workers in Georgia express concern that, like so many good ideas, the program is threatened by pervasive corruption. The facility has had three directors in its short lifespan, and some observers suspect that some of the facility's funding is possibly being diverted into the pockets of politicians, businessmen and organized crime.

Editor's Note: John Smock is a Tbilisi-based freelance photographer.

Posted February 7, 2003 © Eurasianet

Copyright notice: All EurasiaNet material © Open Society Institute

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