A case for mentorship

A case for mentorship

Romel Lezama, who served 11 years in prison for murder, made history twice in 2023. Last February, he became the first prison inmate to qualify for the semi-finals of the National Calypso Monarch competition. And, last week, he was released from the Youth Transformation and Rehabilitation Centre (YTRC), in part because of a record number of testimonials presented on his behalf by prison officials, including Prisons Commissioner Deopersad Ramoutar.

“I have never before seen a testimonial from the Prisons Commissioner himself,” noted High Court Judge Carla Brown-Antoine, adding that, in 30 years of practising law, it was also the first time she had seen so many significant testimonials being presented to the court in favour of just one prisoner.

In 2012, when he was just 16 years old, Lezama killed 20-year-old Shaundele Kinsale, shooting him six times. As he was a minor at the time, Lezama was not given the mandatory death penalty. Justice Brown-Antoine noted that he had been kept at the YTRC even after attaining adult age because the officers considered him a mentor who had a positive influence on the other inmates.

“I hope you return to the YTRC from time to time and continue to mentor those who are still there,” she suggested.

If Lezama is willing, the prison authorities should go beyond encouraging him to do some occasional mentoring and enter into a formal arrangement with him.

While many factors lead to young people becoming criminals, mentoring by experienced criminals is a key influence. These older men take youths under their wing and provide them with protection, training, and even love. This means that once young men become involved in crime, a different kind of mentoring is needed to rehabilitate them.

Despite decades of talk and hundreds of millions in resources, rehabilitation in Trinidad and Tobago has limited effectiveness. This country has a recidivism rate of 49 per cent, meaning almost half of former prison inmates go on to commit additional crimes, once released. The other 51 per cent may or may not have been helped by rehabilitation, although the prisons do have fairly good literacy and skills training programmes. But, as with alcoholics, individuals can only be helped if they want to help themselves.

Romel Lezama was clearly a youth who wanted to help himself and had the ability to lift himself up, as shown by the fact that, while imprisoned, he learned to box and play the drums and sing calypso and also acquired academic qualifications. But, while such potential may be rare, the desire to do better among YTRC inmates is not. A 1997 survey by Prof Ramesh Deosaran and Derek Chadee of the young people incarcerated at the institution found that almost all admitted they had done something wrong, were remorseful about it, and wanted to improve their lives. Among their main goals, 55 per cent wanted to get a job, 31 per cent to further their education, and 32 per cent wanted to be with their families.

These are powerful motivators and, once the proper resources are provided, mentoring can be the key that inspires the YTRC inmates to make up for the mistakes of their youth.

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