EVERY young life lost is a tragedy. Vanessa Wint might have been a Mary Seacole or Gloria Knight, we will never know. In life we hope for better, it eludes us. We seek change and reap grief; transformation and own degradation. Warned of suffering to come, as we signed with the IMF; now it's here, we complain, bawl and blame. We want to go to heaven, but who wants to die? The greatest sufferers among us are children and Vanessa was one in extremis. The system failed her, just as our food production system fails us, schools fail us; we
failed her, another child bites the dust and we don't care a damn!
The Vanessa's story was well ventilated in column, news and picture, and we must make it a teachable moment. When the story broke in November 2012 we knew something was terribly wrong. Did she jump? Was she pushed? Her poor little heart was full, no love, no hope; an unfinished life, she finished it. The term "attention seeking" is the detritus of therapists, used after by uncaring people. To them, broken kids are projects to write papers, give talks, opine. Vanessa needed love. She was a young girl with a burden, exploited to pleasure her protectors and peers. Broken systems and bent men killed her. We are wired for survival, but having been debased, demoralised, demented, her survival instincts did not kick in. Some weeks ago, up the hill, they chased a fowl for the pot and it fought like a demon. The instinct to live is strong. Vanessa was damaged goods. A girl among peers and protectors chose death. Doesn't say much of those she left behind. In the UK, Vanessa would have been on "suicide watch" had 24/7 attention; a "listener" posted and therapies. Self-harm and suicides are in the risk profile of a captive group, so how are officers trained? Were there "peer protectors" in the remand group? Are peers trained how to assist? Are there more Vanessas in waiting? What a tragedy!
...let down by civil society
Suicide is an expected condition among young offenders and, as state care is irascible, civil society has a big role. The "Samaritans" (www.samaritans.org) operate in UK remand centres, prisons and offer 24/7, 365 day watch. Some offer telephone therapies to help the suicidal. Does our prison regime allow this? Our Samaritans forgot Vanessa. The State cannot do everything, and the state should not do everything. The obverse is that the State should not rely on volunteers to do its work. Civil society has been crying out for change, but you cannot
have a bath in a desert, and they did not dirty their hands for her. Vanessa was a child, she mattered.
...let down by the corrections service
The Horizon Remand Centre is not world class -- nothing run by the State is -- but we expect systems and processes since these involve people not cash. The system failed Vanessa. We must demilitarise the corrections service. Juxtapose the name, an ex soldier, a martial command structure, and corrections becomes the "final solution" to corral poor people after lives of gross mis-education. The "Prison Service" in the UK says it all-promises little, yet gives more; but "Corrections" is PR, and promises
much, but delivers death. A cesspool tanker marked "Honey Wagon" -- powerful hyperbole.
The customer service sign is often more irony than reality; is corrections an euphemism to mask brutality? A hint of a promise with no plan to deliver? Is there a remand manual for doing things "by the book"? In the UK, the protocols are strict in youth-offender institutions, as immaturity is a perilous condition. The "emergency kit" used in a critical incident as suicide means sequenced notes, a whistle protocol as investigations follow. Officers know due process does not rely on memory and they may be fired. Roles are assigned in a "first response" team for recording and restraining -- no confusion. Prisons need managers so many are being privatised in the UK, but we are more colonial than the seat of Empire. Prison is a small town; jobs, meals, utilities, recreation, worship, and violence. Prison officers carry no offensive or defensive kit, but are alert as a regular worker in industry with chemicals, machinery, occupational hazards. Prison has its police. The "Red team" handles prison crime, restraint or "take down" to subdue using proportionate force and approved kit. What happens here? Is the system respectful, rights-based, values personal dignity, dehumanises none? Is there training and protocols to deal with self-harm or
suicide watch? The service needs overhaul.
...let down for the corrections officers
Sir, what if it was your daughter? You trained yours well, but it is the Vanessas that cause you to have a job. You have a duty of care to these girls. You take the pay, do the job. Our forte used to be world-class caring; what's with these callous protectors? I have seen "death in custody" and admire UK prison officers; burly men in tears with a heart for the deceased. They leave
flowers in the cell. Vanessa's suicide shames men and women in Corrections.
We may be the world's happiest people but "flippin 'ell," do we love kids? How could a broken teenage girl not win the Godly affection of her minders? They exercise a parent's care; they blew it! How caring are we? Look in the mirror people!
Attention seeking is not a reason to ignore a teen; it's a reason to pay attention dummy! Caring 101. "There goes my girl but for the love of God". Personal comment, sarcasm, innuendo is out, and body language must not be aggressive or suggestive. We say "a weh me do? Me jus look pon har, me nuh touch har," but hand, eye and finger signals can get a prison officer fired in the UK. Do you know a witness may be intimidated by a glance, a threat in a hand motion? Each remand and prison unit needs its "justice and police" corps.
...let down by her own people
The evidence suggests that Vanessa may not have loved her life, but she wanted to live. What turned her in a matter of hours? We read of distraught families and somehow their rage cancels the grief; the verities of diligent parents who gave all for a much-loved child are not clear. Where was Mom, Dad, aunt, uncle when Vanessa was alive? What flowers, kindness or going the extra mile? For many, grief is a commodity we supply on demand. We grieve well. Poor Vanessa, molested by a neighbour, with no one to help; death in custody her fate. You cannot deprive a girl of her freedom ostensibly to protect her and then she ends up dead.
Will heads roll? What of those left behind? Sleep on, Vanessa. Death becomes her. Stay conscious, my friend!
Dr Franklin Johnston is a strategist, project manager and advises the minister of education.franklinjohnston firstname.lastname@example.org