Youth Unemployment and Crime

Photograph by Fernando Moleres of the treatment of children in Pademba Road Central Prison, Freetown, Sierra Leone. Fernando is an award-wining international photographer who supports our work.
Photograph by Fernando Moleres of the treatment of children in Pademba Road Central Prison, Freetown, Sierra Leone. Fernando is an award-wining international photographer who supports our work.

Youth Unemployment and Crime project looks at unemployment and destitution as some of the key issues affecting post war communities in Sierra Leone and Liberia.  In Sierra Leone, unemployment and destitution has forced young people into a life of crime, which is characterised by food or acquisitive theft. This often leads to imprisonment at Pademba Road, a notorious prison in Freetown where hardcore criminals and young offenders are held together in cramped and appalling conditions. Intimidation and bullying also form part of the treatment of young people.

Many of these young offenders were born during Sierra Leone’s ten-year civil war between 1991 and 2001. During the war many were recruited and trained by warlords to carry out brutal mutilations and executions. At the end of the war orphans and demobilised young fighters were left on the streets to fend for themselves. Unskilled and uneducated, they now form the core of the country’s youth unemployment and crime. Official figures in Sierra Leone show that there are over 45% of unemployed youths in the country (this is a gross underestimation).

Overcrowding in Pademba Road prison. Photograph: Fernando Moleres
Overcrowding in Pademba Road prison. Photograph: Fernando Moleres

Sierra Leone’s main prison, Pademba Road, holds over 1,240 prisoners, most of them children. The prison was built in 1914 by the British government to accommodate 320 prisoners. Overcrowding, lack of water and sanitation, and a dysfunctional judicial system has turned Pademba Road into a trap for young prisoners. They are bullied, deprived food and forced into an even deeper criminal life when released into society.2010 figures released by African Dispatches show that the prison holds about 295 convicted prisoners. However, there are about 648 remand prisoners and 188 ‘detainees’. Some of these detainees are there because of petty theft, or unpaid debts which is still a criminal matter.

The International Centre for Prison Studies indicated that official prison population rate per 100,000 of national population is 42. These government official figures are an underestimation of the actual numbers.  Between 2004 and 2010 prison population nearly doubled. Some of these prisoners are low level juveniles who have no jobs or skills. Their only way to survive is to steal food or get into debt.

Source: International Centre for Prison Studies
Source: International Centre for Prison Studies

Diagram 1: The Existing National System


The existing national system above is a self-replicating activity.  It is a vicious circle; a complex of events that reinforces itself through a feedback loop.  Young offenders are held in this closed system that gives no opportunity for life before and after prison other than unemployment, destitution, lack of skills and crime.

Diagram 2: What Practical Tools Initiative advocates


Practical Tools Initiative’s model opens a closed system, facilitating life-changing skills training for young people, and the provision of tools for professionals to establish themselves in their various fields.  Skills training through partners, and the provision of tools in the above diagram (blue square) shows three incoming arrows:

  1. Referral/supervision order from the Criminal Justice System (for example for young people who steal food, or for skilled and artisan people who run into debt and do not have the necessary tools to work and repay their debts)
  2. Through partnership development at community level (for example reaching out and working with community groups, and/or forming small professional groups of between two and five individuals and providing them with the necessary tools to enable them to fully engage in income-generating activities; whether this be carpentry, masonry, painting and decorating, arts and crafts, tailoring and print-making for women, mechanic or plumbing. As seen above in the dashed arrow, this process bypasses the criminal justice system altogether. It prevents young people from getting involved in crime)
  3. From prison (for example skilled individuals or young people who have done their time in prison and are about to be released). In the existing national system, shown in D1 above, there is only one possible destination for young people who are released from prisons; a life of unemployment, destitution, lack of skills and crime.

Practical Tools Initiative offers a detailed and achievable way of facilitating skills training, and empowering skilled individuals and young people. It is a solid and sure path to self-reliance, providing a beneficial and sustainable way to social rehabilitation, community regeneration and integration.

Factors supporting this model

There are several outstanding factors supporting the Practical Tools Initiative model. Firstly, West African traditional approach to apprenticeship is defined by the acceptance of young people by skilled professionals such as carpenters and tailors for training. Young people live with the skills provider and learn through daily practice in their workshops.

However, during the war, many skilled people were displaced and they lost their tools and equipments as most workshops were either vandalised or set on fire. After the end of the war most skilled people were not able to re-establish themselves and take on apprentices as a result of lack of tools and support.  Providing tools to these skilled professionals will enable them to reengage with their trades, increase their household income, and take in apprentices for training.

Secondly, traditional skills such as carpentry, masonry, tailoring, mechanic etc. are in high demand in post war countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia. There are no IKEAs that people can go to to buy their tables, chairs, beds or replacements for their windows and doors, and there are no companies building houses. These services are provided by individual traditional craftsmen and women. Institutions such as schools buy their desks and chairs from local carpenters. Furthermore, West African traditional dresses cannot be mass produced through multinational corporations, and there are no NEXTs or Debenhams, which means people rely heavily on local tailors to make dresses that appeal to traditional taste. In addition, even school uniforms are produced by local tailors.

Thirdly, farming tools such as hoes and other hand objects used by farmers, especially women, are made by traditional blacksmiths. Every town or village has its own blacksmiths, producing farming tools for their communities.  Reengaging these traditional craftsmen and women is very important for agricultural regeneration as repatriated displaced people and refugees rely solely on farming for their livelihoods. Practical Tools Initiative aims to support community blacksmiths with anvils and tongues, specialised hammers, foundry equipment etc. to help regenerate their communities.

Case Studies