Sunday, February 1, 2015

Trouble in the Caribbean

Posted: February 1st, 2015
Author: Tess Robinson

The Problem
With 64% of the population of the Caribbean comprising of people below 30 years of age, Caribbean society can be described as youthful and vigorous (UNDP 2012). Given the predominance of young people in Caribbean society, it stands to reason that our collective priority should be to create an enabling environment for young people, by passing policies and laws which enhance their performance and contribution to Caribbean society. Sadly, quite the opposite is true, and young people in the Caribbean remain largely powerless and voiceless.
Studies in Jamaica, Belize, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Haiti (the list goes on) tell a story of truancy, poor academic achievement, crime and violence amongst our youth. The Caribbean is now faced with a growing number of young people defined as unattached. Unattached youth refers to young people who are either jobless, or who are not within the education system or other training programme. In other words, they exist outside of society. Aged between 14 and 25, these young people are unable to adequately read and write, are unskilled, and consequently are unemployable. The existence of entire communities of unattached youth right across the Caribbean is the product of decades of neglect and indifference. They are the generation which Caribbean society has both forgotten and failed. The ugliness of neglect blights the landscape; a landscape populated by urban ghettoes, gangs, drugs and guns. The terrible plight in which so many of our youth find themselves is evidence that either our priorities lie elsewhere, or that the measures and solutions aimed at engaging with and solving youth problems are not working.
The subject of unattached youth in the Caribbean represents a vast area of research, and much of the data tends to focus on the various kinds of antisocial behaviour associated with this particular group. The primary response of Caribbean states to unattached youths who commit offences has been to criminalise them as delinquent and follow this up with incarceration. Incarceration tends to be a pan Caribbean solution to the growing ranks of increasingly angry, disenfranchised, and impoverished youth. Rather than address the underlying causes to what we, in the Caribbean, have conveniently termed ‘youth delinquency’, we chose the easier option of incarceration (Singh 1997; UNDP 2012). As the saying goes, out of sight, out of mind. Incarceration has offered a handy way to divest ourselves of social responsibility; we wash our hands off the fallout from decades of youth neglect. Consequently the Caribbean has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. If we opened up our prisons, I think we would find that they are primarily comprised of youths, mostly from urban ghettos such as Jamaica’s Tivolli Gardens or Belize’s Southside.
Unattached Youth and the Growth of Gang Culture
With unattached youth comprising as much as 32% of the total youth population, Belize is home to one of the largest communities of unattached youth not just in the Caribbean, but in Latin America (Massari 2011). Belize is closely followed by Jamaica, where unattached youth make up 29% of the total youth population (UNDP 2012). This breaks down to over 200,000 unattached youths in Jamaica alone. Where unattached youth are concerned, Belize and Jamaica are not anomalies but reflect what is now a growing trend in the Caribbean. The numbers of unattached youth in the Caribbean bear testament to the existence of a culture of youth neglect. The Caribbean Human Development Report 2012 notes that ‘involvement in crime and violence among Caribbean youth have become linked to other developmental issues’ such as ‘high levels of youth unemployment, poor educational opportunities, and feelings of voicelessness and exclusion from national and regional governance processes (UNDP 2012)’. The report also notes that the majority of Caribbean youth who fall foul of the police or justice system are the product of long standing neglect, abuse and abandonment and are, in fact, desperately in need of care and protection (UNDP 2012). These so called ‘delinquent youths’ are better described as ‘at risk youth’. Delinquency, a term used to frame the behaviour of a section of young people in the Caribbean, is fast turning into a characteristic or pathology seen as inherent to Caribbean youth as a whole. The great convenience of the term ‘delinquent’ is better appreciated when we look at Caribbean prisons, now home to entire communities of apparently ‘delinquent’ youths. Replace ‘delinquent’ with ‘at risk youth’ and suddenly the crime is open for all to see; it is not the youth who are delinquent but a society grown indifferent to the needs of its young people.
It is critical that Caribbean society, its policy makers and legislators, recognise that it is from the ranks of unattached youth that gang members arise. To understand gangs requires understanding the whole phenomenon of unattached youth. To illustrate this, we only have to search for the one thing which gangs share in common in the Caribbean. Although the structure of gangs, and the kinds of crimes with which they are associated, vary between Caribbean countries, there are consistencies. Gang members tend to come from the lowest socio-economic group and enter gangs because legitimate access to opportunities and resources (academic, social and economic) are denied them. Gangs circumvent the obstacles and barriers to economic resources through criminal activity (UNDP 2012).
Why Incarceration Is Not A Solution
Research in the US has shown that the prison system has played an important role in creating, sustaining, and facilitating gang culture. Further, evidence suggests that the rapid growth in prison incarceration rates is actually facilitating the growth and spread of gang culture, and what we are now seeing is a parallel growth between incarceration rates and the growth of gang/criminal groups.
It is becoming clear that prisons are central to gang life. If the Caribbean really wants to address the problem of gang culture then it needs to start by a thorough investigation of the prison system. Prisons have always functioned as focal points for recruiting and building gangs. Young men entering the prison system, with no previous gang affiliation, soon realize that to survive prison requires protection, and this is achieved by joining in-house prison gangs. In US prisons, as in the Caribbean, there are many options with multiple gangs being housed within a single prison. Examples of gangs which had their inception in prison are the Mexican Mafia, Neta, Aryan Brotherhood, Black Guerrilla Family, La Nuestra Familia and the Texas Syndicate. None of these gangs had counterparts on the street (Carlie 2002).
Incarceration, a primary solution to so called delinquent behaviour amongst Caribbean youth, may well be one of the factors aiding the rise in gang culture in the Caribbean.
Why Is The Caribbean Choosing Incarceration As A Solution To What Is In Effect A Problem Of Youth Neglect?
As part of the war on drugs, the US has instituted policies in the Caribbean aimed at suppressing gang culture. Elite police corps, trained in the US to combat gangs, can now be found across the Caribbean and Latin America. In order to gain insight into our approach (in the Caribbean) to gang crime, it is important to look at the US, because methods used in crime prevention in the US, are being trialled in the Caribbean. In particular, US penitentiary culture, largely a response to the war on drugs, is touted by many as a model to be emulated by the Caribbean. Where incarceration is concerned, America leads the way, but to our shame, the Caribbean is right up there, a close second. Following the example set by the US, we have succeeded in criminalizing a whole segment of our population, primarily unattached youth, stigmatised by poverty and having few skills to trade on the job market.
We are so keen to emulate all things American, but if we knew a little bit more about what we are emulating, there would be less reason to be proud of our achievement. Michelle Alexander, Ohio State University law professor, civil rights activist and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, claims that more black American men are behind bars today or being processed within the criminal justice system (on parole or probation) than were slaves before the Civil War. Alexander shows how, in the US, racism has been restructured in such a way as to be almost invisible, mediated through a penitentiary system which stealthily removes certain people off the streets. The demographic of US prisoner populations is 50% African American, 35% Latino and 15% white. These statistics have been used by law enforcement and white citizens alike as evidence of the pathology of US African Americans and Hispanics. Backed by these statistics law enforcement can target African Americans and Hispanics, whilst white communities can find support for segregation. US prisoner demographic continues to be manipulated as evidence to support arguments which caste black and Hispanics as inherently criminal.
The truth, however, behind the over representation of African-Americans and Hispanics in US prisons is much more complex. As activists, teachers and researchers point out; there is a system of state sponsored racism at work in the US which functions to roundup and usher young black and Hispanic children into the prison system. African-American and Hispanic children are channelled into the prison system, a process referred to as the school to prison pipeline.
The Ghetto
In the US, the ghetto is an important component of the school to prison pipeline. The ghetto is a place where poverty is concentrated, where opportunities are few and consequently, where crime is rife. Ghetto communities are marred by social and economic inequalities that are traceable to events in the in the early 1900s, notably laws and policies designed and enforced by federal and state governments to segregate blacks from whites. Seitles notes that the ‘emergence of the black ghetto did not happen by chance, but was the result of deliberate housing policies of the federal, state, and local government and the intentional actions of individual American citizens. As a result, the creation of the urban ghetto has had a lasting impact on America. The consequences include: a lack of capital in inner city communities, segregated minority neighbourhoods, and minority families unable to find affordable housing in the suburbs due to government sponsored racism (Seitles 1996)’.
The social conditions and the mind-set which gave rise to the ghetto in the 1900s, can be traced back to the American Civil War. In the American South, following the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, laws were enacted which allowed whites to regain control over freed slaves so as to ensure the continuation of cheap labour. These laws, first the Black Codes and then the Jim Crow Laws (1880s-1960s), gave white communities vigilante status, and encouraged individual citizens to actively police and keep blacks under constant surveillance. These laws functioned as a code of conduct by which blacks had to abide when in the presence of, or in dealings with, whites. The number and intricacy of these laws meant that a black person was always a hairs breadth away from an infraction. Therefore a black person not only risked prison but also lynching for such small infractions as looking directly into the eyes of a white person or not showing enough deference to a white person in social exchanges (Rudd, Hanes and Hermsen 2007). Prison was a place where African Americans were directed to.
Implications for the Caribbean
As in the US, ghettos are also common to the Caribbean. The similarity is more than just coincidental. Caribbean ghetto communities are the results of decades of state sponsored discrimination. This discrimination is directly linked to structural racism which still persists in the Caribbean region in the form of residue infrastructures originally set up by colonial powers to govern the colonies, and which functioned to maintain the status quo. These governing bodies, now outdated, continue to structure the life of people in the Caribbean. The inability of Caribbean nations to develop new governance structures that reflect the changed circumstances of post-colonial life has brought criticism by researchers and NGOs. For instance it has been noted that Caribbean police forces are still functioning as colonial forces (UNDP 2012). Under colonial rule, the police force functioned to maintain the power, prerogatives and security of the colonial overseers who formed a politically and socially elite substratum. This could only be achieved by ensuring that the populace did not claim their equal rights to protection and security. The police force actively mediated for, as well as enforced the prerogatives of, the colonial rulers. Following independence, the colonial elite were replaced by a new home-grown political elite, who very quickly took on the same power relationships with the populace that had defined the colonial overlords. In other words, colonial masters were replaced by local politicos, and the structures which maintained the absolute power of the colonial elite continued to serve a new local elite. These home-grown elite, because they were and still are on the receiving end of an unfair balance of power, see little reason to change the structures inherited from colonial times even though those structures never have and never will give representation to, or serve the needs of, Caribbean peoples. The Caribbean Human Development Report (2012) suggests that ‘post-colonial nations striving for full democracy, economic development, social stability and citizen security must find ways to evolve the role of security personnel into one whereby the rights of all people are protected and defended. This means that the security agency must transition from a state security-oriented force to a citizen-oriented force. This type of force should include professional managers, a personnel system that makes the force representative of the population it has sworn to serve and a standardized method so that citizens can share their grievances with police, and it must include officers who see their first duty as loyalty to their countrymen and the rule of law, not the state or its political leaders (UNDP 2012).’
Discrimination, mediated through institutions originally set up to serve colonial prerogatives, now has as its target Caribbean youth. Rather than resolve to look at the processes by which our youth have become pathologized as delinquent, we augment an already discriminatory system with further suppressive and punitive measures emanating from the US, as part of its war on drugs strategy.
Is it any wonder that Caribbean youth have appropriated black American ghetto identity with all its cultural forms, including rap music and gang fraternity? Rather than blame Caribbean youth for departing from Caribbean cultural norms, and for adopting imported black American identities, we need to start reading this as both an act of protest and a position of solidarity with an equally disenfranchised and much abused sector of society.
Alexander, Michelle 2010 The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press: New York.
Carlie, Michael K. 2002 Into the Abyss: A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs.
Massari, R 2011 La juventud en los mercados laborales de América Latina y el Caribe. Draft Paper
Peirce, Jennifer and Alexandre Veyrat-Pontet 2013 Citizen Security in Belize Inter-American Development Bank.
Rudd, Kelly, Richard Hanes and Sarah Hermsen 2007 ‘Racial Segregation in the American South: Jim Crow Laws.’ Prejudice in the Modern World Reference Library. Vol. 2. 333-357. UXL:Detroit.
Seitles, Marc 1996 ‘The Perpetuation of Residential Racial Segregation in America: Historical Discrimination, Modern Forms of Exclusion, and Inclusionary Remedies.’ Journal of Land Use and Environmental Law.
Singh, W. 1997 Alternatives to Custody in the Caribbean: The Handling of Children Who Come into Conflict with the Law
UNDP 2012 Caribbean Human Development Report 2012 – Human Development and the Shift to Better Citizen Security. New York.