By Robert Luckock
MARIGOT--Of the sail training vessels passing through the Caribbean, the topsail schooner Salomon is perhaps unique in that it serves as a floating reform school for young offenders where emphasis is on rehabilitation and changing behaviour as opposed to punishment for wrong-doing in the conventional sense of a correctional institution.
Built in 1910, Salomon left St. Martin Wednesday and sails year-round between Europe and the Caribbean, operating under the auspices of Foundation Youth Ships Switzerland. The vessel received its third refit in 2003 but at the end of its current trip it will be hauled out for major maintenance.
The programme, paid for partly by government, parents, and donations to the foundation, caters to a maximum of 15 male teenagers between the ages of 14-17, who stay on board for a year. The crew of 25, including a talking African Parrot, are predominantly Swiss or German nationals while teachers, social workers and psychologists work one-on-one with the youngsters. The days are mostly taken up with school work, cleaning and doing chores on the vessel.
Sailing the ship under the supervision of Captain Patrick Gränicher is a smaller part of the programme but as the foundation points out it’s another education in itself. The tasks and manoeuvres are all completed with teamwork and accomplishment generates a lot of satisfaction.
At the end of the year the youngsters receive certification that will help them re-integrate into society, find jobs, or return to school. The foundation continues to monitor their progress on land.
“These are kids, mostly from Switzerland, who have social problems or are depressed and have been in trouble with the law, usually for disobedience, petty crimes or drug-taking,” explains the foundation’s managing director Jonathan Reist. “Sometimes it’s the fault of their parents and upbringing, or because of disadvantaged circumstances. They are sent to us by the court; the judge will sometimes give them a choice of this ship or another reform facility, or no choice.”
“The boys have usually been kicked out of other institutions already but our concept works around the worse they behave, the longer they stay on the vessel. The bad behaviour usually occurs in the beginning because they are used to doing what they want and not used to respecting authority.”
A grading system of one to six regularly evaluates the performance of the youngsters while on board. A mark of one is bad and six is very good. The idea is that the better they behave and complete their tasks, the shorter the time they have to spend on board.
“A poor performance in one week means they have to repeat that week to our satisfaction,” Reist adds. “This is not a holiday or a time-out for them; they really have to make a big effort otherwise they have to stay longer on board which they don’t want to do. But the longer they stay the better they feel.”
Reist notes the small environment is conducive to building relationships which most of the kids have never had before. Looks can be deceiving and from the outside there is no knowing what is going on in their heads. Occasionally one tries to escape by jumping overboard during the night but they are quickly retrieved or swim back to the ship, or are later returned by the police.
“It’s important to make them realise that we like them and are trying to bring them forward in life. At first they don’t believe you and keep on testing you. But once you gain their trust, they start listening and then you can give them the advice they can take away.”
As one youngster completes his time, a new recruit will join the ship. A newcomer is helped by the others to settle in and this usually involves smoothing out the rough edges and attitude.
With an over 60 per cent success rate, the foundation is proud of its rehabilitation concept compared to a five per cent success rate at other institutions. Success means the kids don’t become criminals; they stay off drugs, and go back to school or find employment.
One of the young offenders called Jimmy (not his real name) who comes from St. Gallen, Switzerland said he had a history of disobedience at home, drug-taking and run-ins with the police. He’s been on the ship 42 weeks.
“I was at another institution before and was always in trouble but I prefer being on this ship because they take more time to help you, to listen to your problems,” said Jimmy (16). “We are a long way from home. I was very rude when I first joined the ship. But now it feels like a big family. They tell us when we do good and when we are bad.”
For more information about the programme visit http://www.jugendschiffe.ch/index_englisch.html