Tostan’s Prison Project team completes hundreds of family mediations each year as a part of the project’s mission to promote the successful reintegration of former detainees into society. The Prison Project provides a human rights-based education program, similar to the Community Empowerment Program (CEP), and income-generating skills training in five prisons in Senegal.
A family mediation begins when a detainee participating in the Tostan program requests that the Prison Project team contact their family, usually to request visits, supplies, and a place to stay when released. The team visits families in their homes to encourage a renewed relationship with their incarcerated loved one and a response to the detainee’s requests. Mediations can take many forms and every family responds to them in a different way. They require persistence, patience, and open communication, and, if successful, the mediations can pave the way to better lives for former detainees and their families across Senegal.
In Senegal, some families reject anyone who has been incarcerated for any reason on the basis that they bring shame to the family. This becomes more and more prevalent based on the severity of the crime, particularly if it was perpetuated against a member of the family. This rejection means that detainees do not receive family visits, much-needed supplies, such as food to augment their diet and medications, and a place to go when released. What the Prison Project strives to do is to bridge this gap between detainees and families by explaining the harsh realities in Senegalese prison, which include overcrowding and a lack of food and healthcare, as well as the detainee’s participation in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP) and in income-generating activities. Participation in these activities demonstrates the detainee’s dedication to turning their life around.
Because the CEP covers topics including human rights, democracy, hygiene and health, problem solving, literacy, and other useful and important skills, participation in the program is used as a tangible example of a detainee’s changed behavior and increasing ability to succeed in life outside of prison. Income-generating skills contribute to this same goal, showing that the detainee would even have a way to contribute financially to the family instead of being a financial burden.
Every family has a unique response to mediation. Some are willing to help after hearing about the difficult circumstances in prison. They agree to visit, they send money or supplies, and they agree to accept the detainee back into the family home when released. Some even request a transfer to a closer prison, when applicable, until the release date. Others are not so willing. Some refuse to do anything whatsoever and others agree merely to begin the process by calling a family meeting or talking with an important family elder. When the Prison Project team faces such obstacles, they persist and schedule another mediation.
As difficult and complex as family mediations can be, they do often truly succeed. And a successful mediation is essential in that it improves family relationships and general perceptions of detainees and former detainees in society, and greatly reduces recidivism rates. Families who reconnect with their incarcerated loved ones and support them upon release help those former detainees to become productive members of society. Families can also help detainees to utilize the education and the income-generating skills they acquire with Tostan’s Prison Project during incarceration to improve their lives, contribute to their family’s income, and teach others.
Fama Sall, a former detainee at the Thiès prison, is a perfect example of how a family mediation can change the course of a life. Fama was arrested at a very young age. She spent four years in prison and participated in the CEP throughout her incarceration. She took part in income-generation training, showing special interest in sewing and embroidery. On her behalf, the Prison Project team conducted a mediation with her parents, who had previously rejected her. The family was at first very hostile but after multiple attempts by the Prison Project team, they agreed to welcome Fama back into the family home. Prison Project team members were even able to get Fama released early, based on her dedication to the CEP and revenue-generating training and the good behavior it encouraged. When Fama returned, her family welcomed her with open arms, supporting her to reintegrate into society and to start income-generating activities. The Prison Project gave her a small start-up fund to help her begin activities and now, a year later, Fama is thriving, running a small business embroidering traditional clothing. Fama and her family could not be happier with their current situation and thank the Prison Project often for bringing them back together.
The Prison Project works hard to ensure that detainees’ reintegration is successful so that they contribute to their family and community rather than returning to the activities that led them to prison. Family mediations are essential to this process; without mediations and family acceptance, successful reintegration of detainees is almost impossible. Since the Prison Project began in 2003, the team has completed thousands of mediations, contributing to thousands of reintegration success stories throughout Senegal.