Published on 2nd June 2017
What do prisoners do after they've served their sentence? VSA volunteer Heather Smyth is working in Vanuatu to reduce the rate of re-offending.
“Countries that don’t address re-offending often end up with a class of professional criminals who go on to lead a life of crime – and get better at it,” says Rob Macalister, the Coordinator for Vanuatu Correctional Services Partnership – a part of the New Zealand Aid Programme funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Part of Rob’s role, as a member of the Rehabilitation Leadership Group, is to assist Vanuatu’s Department of Corrections to develop rehabilitation programmes with the aim of lowering Vanuatu’s crime rate. Prior to 2006, Vanuatu’s prisons were run by the police and there was little focus on providing offenders with tools to reintegrate with society and leave their criminal lives behind.
Rehabilitation isn’t just good for individuals. In a small nation like Vanuatu, it also creates significant economic benefits.
As Rob says, “Many industries will only flourish if levels of crime are low. Tourism, on which Vanuatu has a high dependence, is a good example. As an isolated, scattered group of islands, Vanuatu already has enough challenges to economic development. This is why Heather’s role is so important.”
Rob’s talking about Heather Smyth, a VSA volunteer based in the Koreksonal Centre in Luganville. “I’d seen the benefit of internally delivered programmes at Corrections in New Zealand,” she says. “So I wrote a proposal to the Rehabilitation Leadership Group to develop simple and interactive programmes for Ni-Vanuatu prison and probation officers to deliver to the detainees in prison and offenders in the community.
“So far, to this end, I have been appointed counterparts (prison officers) as trainers, have developed the first three modules and, with their help, piloted them in the prison in Luganville.”
Heather has trained 24 prison officers to use motivational interviewing – a form of communication to promote change – to help rehabilitate detainees. It’s a technique that translates well into the local culture, she says. “[Prison officers] are comfortable working this way as Ni-Van people appear to like words and stories, so motivational interviewing works well here. The response has been enthusiastic.”
Successful practical rehabilitation programmes such as joinery, agriculture and catering have been running in the prisons for several years. The agricultural programme teaches detainees to grow vegetables and rear chickens. The detainees enrolled in catering learn skills including baking bread and hosting events, with a view to starting their own business.
The pilot programmes are geared towards helping the detainees choose an offence-free lifestyle.
Despite her experience and success implementing ground-breaking change over her first four months, Heather still finds some aspects of the work challenging. “The most difficult thing I have found here is the number of sexual offences and the young age of the victims.”
There’s no doubt that Heather’s work can be confronting and emotionally tough, but her persistence and resilience are putting the foundations in place for huge positive change for individual prisoners, and for Vanuatu’s society and economy.
Rob says, “With Heather’s help, Vanuatu looks forward to keeping its reputation as the happiest and safest country in the South Pacific, where visitors feel welcome and safe, and where business can operate without the burden of a high crime rate.”