By Elisabeth Auvillain, Catholic News Service
PARIS — When Laurent Thorigné went to the Philippines to work for a nongovernmental organization serving underage inmates, he initially did not know it had been set up by a French nun.
“What struck me was how dynamic the organization was, how full of humanity,” Thorigné said. “It was really inspiring. I could feel a lot of hope. The sisters were so full of energy, of attention. They cared so much about everyone: the detainees but also the volunteers, everyone. Their dedication to their work was very impressive.”
The Association Compassion Asian Youth offers the School of Life for women, many of whom were abused, and the Second Chance program for men, to give teen and young adult inmates a second chance after they come out of jail. Time spent behind bars is meant to become a useful time, when inmates can think of the choices they want to make for the rest of their lives.
Thorigné spent a summer in Manila in 2003, then a whole year with ACAY, whose work became the subject of his master’s thesis in political science. After completing his studies, he decided to return to the Philippines to work for ACAY for two years. He stayed for 10.
ACAY and its programs were started by Sister Sophie Renoux, known as Sister Sophie de Jésus, who founded the Missionaries of Mary in the Diocese of Novaliches, Philippines, in 2007. But every year, Sister Sophie returned to her hometown of Marseille, France, to raise funds for ACAY, and Thorigné would return to France, too. Together, they gave presentations about the Second Chance program to French high school students as well as detainees.
Second Chance relies on peer-to-peer interaction, testimonials from program alumni, videos and counseling sessions for offenders to recognize the patterns of behavior that got them into jail and opportunities to change when they are released.
“Those who take part in our program are eager to turn the page of their dark past,” Thorigné said. “It is impossible to do anything without their agreement.”
In 2010, a French magistrate dealing with underage delinquents heard about ACAY’s work. She offered Sister Sophie and Thorigné a chance to discover the reality of the French judicial system for juvenile and young adult offenders.
In France, about 110,000 young people leave school every year at age 16 with no degree or qualifications. With a high rate of unemployment, they are at risk of getting involved in criminal activities. A study from the French justice ministry said “more than three-quarters of those sentenced to prison who were minors at the time of the crime were reconvicted, and almost seven out of 10 were resentenced to prison within five years.”
ACAY’s approach believes that time in detention can be a useful period during which young people can experience the turning point of changing their life. ACAY workers offer a chance to these young offenders to figure out the reasons that led them to commit crimes, suggest they choose to lead a normal life, find their strong points and talents, and teach them how they can get a real job or go back to school.
So when Thorigné decided to return home in 2014, the French management of the Penitentiary Establishment for Minors in Marseille offered him and Sister Sophie a chance to set up a similar program in Marseille, which holds one of the six jails in the country reserved for minors.
French authorities try to do as much prevention as possible during pretrial detention. Underage offenders have to see specially trained educators, psychologists and teachers who prepare their reentry into society.
School is compulsory in France until age 16. Detainees attend classes in jail. Like in any other school in France, Wednesday afternoon is free of classes, and there is a two-week break every seven weeks. So every Wednesday, volunteers working for ACAY come to visit the detention center to meet the young men, mostly on a one-on-one basis.
During the two-week holiday, inmates can join a five-day training session. Through videos and recorded testimonials from former Filipino inmates, this session aims to raise awareness about the context of life of juvenile delinquents in other countries and the different stages of recovery.
“Detainees are interested to discover the experiences Filipino youths are ready to share. We wait for them to express a will to do something with their life once they are out of jail,” Thorigné said. “The initiative has to come from them. They are at the center of our work. If we do not put them in the center of our action, it is useless.”
Three times a year, in April, August and October, detainees meet former Filipinos who give testimonials on their experience.
“Detainees are impressed by these guys they could identify with and are ready to listen to them,” Thorigné said.
During France’s second COVID-19 lockdown last fall, Idrisse, who completed the Second Chance program in France, gave a testimony to detainees in Marseille.
Idrisse went to the Philippines in 2019 to tell of his experience to ACAY participants in Manila. He had been in jail several times before he turned 18. He met with ACAY volunteers when he was behind bars and understood it was possible to start a new life. Now 24, he is a construction worker in Marseille.
He said he was shocked to see the awful state of Philippine jails. He met with detainees, talked to them about his own experience — not very different from theirs, he said — played soccer with them and realized anyone can change.
“These youths were listening to me. It gave me more confidence and made me feel like doing more for them,” Idrisse said.
Once they are out of jail, former detainees are still accompanied by ACAY volunteers. They also can get help from sponsors of ACAY. Twelve of the 15 former detainees accompanied by ACAY since 2016 are now training for a job or learning a new skill like driving.
“Generally, youth in the Philippines don’t have the same access to different forms of support as youth in France,” Thorigné said. “In France, it is easier to take these for granted, while Filipinos have difficulties meeting their basic needs. Young people in France do not always see the possibility of training in a new job as a real opportunity, because it is here for everybody, education is free, where Filipinos see going to school as a chance.”
Idrisse’s experience with the Second Chance program in France and seeing how ACAY operates in the Philippines left a lasting impression.
“With ACAY I have understood how, through a very humanitarian approach, any youth could start again and have a different life.”
Auvillain is a freelance journalist based in Paris.