Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” – Luke 17:20-21
Fifteen years ago, the juvenile detention centers in the city of São Paulo were notorious for abuse and riots. First timer offenders were grouped together with habitual offenders. Preteens were housed together older teens. The facilities were overcrowded and understaffed and nothing was done to rehabilitate the juvenile offenders. When friends and families wanted to visit the children, they were subjected to humiliating strip searches and often times treated as if they were criminals themselves. This was fifteen years ago.
We recently went to several detention centers. We were actually invited by the staff. Each detention center has a team of social workers and psychiatrists working along side with the prison guards. The focus now is to rehabilitate these young offenders. We were asked to participate in the rehabilitation process.
The center had all the characteristics of a prison. After all, this is still a juvenile prison and these offenders can be violent and dangerous despite their young age. Upon our arrival, we were introduced to the rehabilitation team as well as the prosecuting lawyer. We shared our thoughts on Erica, the girl that we were visiting. Erica is 11 years old and she is a first time offender. We were trying to figure out the best way to help Erica make better choices for her life.
The prosecuting lawyer believed that Erica would be released soon because there was no evidence that she actually committed a crime. This does not mean she was innocent. The center only releases children and teens to shelters or to their parents. Erica does not have any contact with her family and she does not really have a home where she can return. She asked to be released to a shelter where she used to live. Unfortunately, this shelter is not equipped to house anyone long term. We could not think of any halfway house for her. Our meeting with Erica did not end positively as we cannot find her a place to stay permanently. She was eventually released to the shelter and we worry that she might not stay long there.
We visited another juvenile center which housed older teens and this time we visited a fifteen year old boy, Bruno. For Bruno, the detention center with all its improvements has become a place of reflection. He was able to talk with the counsellors about his future. He was interested in making some life-changing decisions but he felt that going home would not be a step in the right direction. His family is involved in drugs. Bruno also wants to be released to a shelter where he hopes to continue his education. So far, the center hasn’t found any place to receive Bruno and he will remain incarcerated until then.
The juvenile detention centers used to be places of violence and corruption, but something good has happened to drastically change the environment of these centers. For many of these young offenders, this might be the only place where they meet adults who actually care for their well-being. It is not a perfect system by any means. I am sure that one could find many faults with it. However, I am comparing the centers to what they used to be like fifteen years ago. There is a radical change of attitude towards the young offenders. It reflects a sense of hope for these young men and women who are so used to feeling hopeless.
I did some research and read a newspaper article written by a Catholic Bishop in regards to the reforms of the juvenile detention centers. The article states that in 1999, the governor of São Paulo decided that the juvenile detention centers needed to change their focus and treatment of the young offenders. He engaged the help of the Church and various social agencies. The governor listened to the concerns of the Church and the bishops offered some concrete steps to improve the centers. We saw these steps being implemented. The secular agencies also contributed to this dialogue and many of their contributions have helped to change the environment of the centers.
Sometimes, we hear criticism against the government and the Church that they are doing nothing to make things better. Sometimes we hear people criticizing God for the problems of society. It is easy to criticize. Sometimes criticism is important and helpful. However, criticism without faith and compassion blinds us from seeing the things God is doing in this world. The Kingdom of God is here. Sometimes we don’t see the things God is doing in the world because we have chosen to see only the negative. This is because oftentimes we criticize without compassion and genuine concern. The Kingdom of God is here and it is manifesting itself in this world. God moves kings and bishops and all kinds of people to make changes in the world. Our role is to identify the presence of the Kingdom in the here and now and testify to its glory. The Kingdom of God is in our midst and we need faith and compassion to see it.