The youth facility as a total institution: A focus on experiences of mortification.

Author:Aguilar, Maria Virginia G.

Republic Act (RA) 9344 of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act (JJWA) of the Philippines promises to champion the cause of youth offenders as it takes into consideration the flaws of the juvenile justice system. (1) The law seeks to deal with youths in a manner that is appropriate to their stage of development, while reinforcing the fundamental importance of restorative justice. As such, RA 9344 veers away from retribution, which was the principle behind the policy of youth incarceration in the Philippines before its passage in 2006. This change in attitude started with the use of the neutral term children in conflict with the law (CICL) instead of the term delinquent. This landmark legislation mandates that anyone who is fifteen or younger is exempted from criminal liability, while those older than fifteen but younger than eighteen can only be charged accountable if it can be proven that they acted with discernment. (2) The 2013 amendment of the law retains the age of fifteen as the minimum age of criminal responsibility, but requires the twelve to fifteen year-old recidivists and serious offenders in a youth facility to be rehabilitated. (3)

For the CICL to be rehabilitated, RA 9344 provides for the adoption of a diversion system with a two-fold purpose. First, to dispose of the CICL's case without a formal trial and second, to admit them into youth homes where they can receive services and go through programs to rehabilitate them. Diversion is rooted in the notion that youth is a transitional period in life; wayward activities are inevitable among "persons in formation" because their moral sense is still developing but they will eventually "outgrow" criminal behavior. (4) Diversion clearly steps away from the deterrence argument, which argues that it is only through the certainty, swiftness, and severity of punishment that youth re-offending can be prevented. (5) Diversion, as an example of a community-based program, allows offenders to serve all or a part of their sentence in the community and makes use of community resources to complement and support traditional correctional functions. (6)

When the CICL are diverted to a facility, RA 9344 dictates that each child goes through an individualized program that responds to his or her needs, based on the assumption that youth offenders come from different backgrounds and their degree of involvement in delinquency also varies. (7) The goal is to teach the CICL mechanisms for self-regulation so that when they are released to the community, they will be able to avoid or refuse opportunities to re-offend. (8) Hence, the crucial role of facilities to reform the CICL cannot be overemphasized, and as such section 53 of RA 9344 directs the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) to establish a facility in each region, while section 17 obliges local government units (LGUs) to establish their own youth homes within five years of the law's implementation. (9) It is in this context that St. John's Shelter (10) was established in Cavite, Philippines. When RA 9344 passed in 2006, the local Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) turned over all incarcerated minors (defined as those younger than eighteen) to St. John's Shelter and hitherto, all minors caught violating the law have to be admitted to shelter. (11) As a community-based facility, St. John's Shelter is guided by its mission (12) "to provide utmost care, protection, and guidance of its residents (13) using the multidisciplinary approach that adequately prepares them for an outright living and be a better person when reunited with their families and reintegrated with their family and community." Since the shelter opened, thirty-five to fifty residents are housed at any given time at this facility.

The hope that community-based facilities can genuinely reform youth offenders is not unfounded. Mark Lipsey's 1995 and 1998 studies concluded that community-based corrections can effectively rehabilitate delinquents. (14) In his 1995 study, he conducted a meta-analysis of approximately 400 studies on the treatment of juvenile delinquency. Lipsey found that community-based treatment resulted in an approximately 10 percent reduction of recidivism. (15) Likewise, community-based treatment also works with the most serious youth offenders based on the results of nearly 200 experimental or quasi-experimental studies. (16)

It is, however, a mistake to conclude that admission to a facility for the intent of rehabilitation is the panacea for youth offending. Significant arguments against the effectiveness of rehabilitation facilities to reform offenders have been put forward, most notably by Andrew Scull in Decarceration: Community Treatment and the Deviant--a Radical View. Scull employs the term decarceration to refer to the policy of closing down asylums, prisons, and reformatories and the admission of "the mad and the bad" in community-based facilities to be rehabilitated. (17) He dismisses decarceration as a "new humanitarian myth, built on a foundation of sand." (18) Through historical and comparative methods, he concludes that rehabilitation facilitated in the community has not lowered crime statistics, mainly because communities are ill-equipped to deal with criminals and mentally-ill people, and facilities do not have the deterrence mechanisms of prisons. In the same light, Erving Goffman's Asylum: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates contends that a facility that qualifies as a "total institution" will seek to rehabilitate its wards, but cannot achieve this goal because a meaningful "home life" existence is problematic in a "total institution." (19) For Goffman, asylums and prisons are examples of what a "total institution" is: a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enforced, formally administered round of life. (20) In a total institution, rehabilitation is achieved by purging out of the inmates (the people admitted inside) their individual identities because only then can the institution "resocialize" them through its own norms. Hence, a total institution takes over the lives of the inmates, treating them as a homogenous group without the opportunity for individual choice. Even in personal domains such as their daily schedule of activities, it is the management that drafts and enforces it in a military-style that Goffman terms regimentation. (21) The inmates are also subjected to processes of mortification, eliciting experiences of degradations and humiliations, all as part of the scheme to remove any trace of individual identity. This deliberate removal of an inmate's "civilian" identity is fundamental to the institution because only then can it impose its own social arrangements to produce what they perceive is the "ideal" or "perfect" inmate.

Against this backdrop, the present study aims to determine whether St. John's Shelter qualifies as a total institution. The study will discuss the mortification experiences, if any, of the children in conflict with the law, from admission to confinement in St. John's Shelter and how they adapt to institutional living.


This study uses qualitative research--specifically ethnography--to gather rich, descriptive data about the experiences...

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