How often do you think about our brothers and sisters languishing in prison? Not often, right? Well, not so for Brother Linus Schoutsen, 78, whose waking and sleeping hours are dedicated to prisoners. His is a life devoted to giving prisoners a new ray of hope and a second chance through education, as narrated to HENRY KAHARA.
When Brother Linus Schoutsen was sent to Kenya by a group of brethrens from Italy, he was not so sure about his assignment in the new country. Fifty-two years later, he sure knows what his purpose for coming to Kenya was – making the dignity and the welfare of prisoners the concern of his life.
Br. Linus arrived in Kenya in 1964 at the age of 26 and settled in Kisii. He was stationed at Bishop Otunga High School, which was run by Catholic missionaries, as the institution’s overseer.
He worked there for 33 years before being transferred to Nairobi in 1997 to help Father Arnold Grol who had requested for assistance from the congregation of Brothers of our Lady Mother of Mercy due to his frail health and old age. It was decided that Br. Linus was the most suitable candidate to assist the ageing priest.
No sooner had Br. Linus joined him than Fr. Grol breathed his last, leaving Br. Linus to run the organisation he had started – Father Grol’s Welfare Trust.
Father Grol’s welfare Trust is a non-governmental organisation whose aim is to promote the dignity of prisoners by enhancing collaborative efforts towards rehabilitation and reintegration into the community by strengthening their capacity for quality life solutions.
Br. Linus shares that since he started working with the prisoners, he has never looked back. He is currently the coordinator of the Father Grol’s Welfare Trust, which works in partnership with the Kenya Prisons Service.
Genesis of Father Grol’s Welfare Trust
Before 1980, Nairobi was very clean, glamorous and orderly, no garbage and no street children. But this started changing in the mid-80s when street children flooded the ‘Green City in the Sun.’
The issue bothered Father Grol who was based at St Teresa Parish in Eastleigh, that he started the Undugu Rehabilitation Centre to rehabilitate the street children.
In 1984 while on leave, one of the rehabilitated street boys stole money from the institution and the administrator reported him to the police. The boy was arrested and subsequently jailed at the Athi River GK Prison. It is here that Fr. Grol’s passion for prisoners was born as he kept visiting the boy.
His conviction that correction supersedes condemnation led him to support the jailed street boy by encouraging and supporting him to build on skills that would earn him an honest living while in prison.
Upon release from prison, the boy engaged the carpentry skills he had learnt while serving his sentence to make furniture for sale, enabling him to make an honest living.
With this success story, Fr. Grol was convinced that inmates could make something out of their lives if given a chance. Fr. Grol, who had served the Parish for 23 years by the time of his death, started rehabilitating inmates hence the birth of Father Grol’s Welfare Trust.
Brother Linus taking over…
In the absence of Fr. Grol, the organisation’s responsibility was deployed to Br. Linus Schoutsen. Br. Linus took up the task with gusto and has been like a brother to prisoners, giving them hope for the last 19 years and his advanced age has not slowed him down.
“My age helps me to be more effective in my work since most people heading various departments in prisons are younger. I am therefore free to criticise them when they go wrong without intimidation,” notes Br. Linus.
According to him, most people think prisoners are terrible people and don’t have a right to lead honourable lives.
“We forget that inmates are people too and they deserve second chances at life,” he says, adding that about 20 per cent of the prisoners are innocent and are paying for offences they didn’t commit while others are victims of circumstances.
The trust thus trains and educates those working in prisons to appreciate and uphold prisoners’ rights. The organisation was instrumental in successfully lobbying for prisoners’ right to education and currently, prisoners can seat for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE).
On top of that, they equip them with technical skills such as carpentry, masonry, welding and knitting for women among others. The initiative has been instrumental in keeping the prisoners busy hence helping them make the most out of their time in incarceration.
“Our aim is to make sure that prisoners don’t waste their time in confinement,” says Br. Linus, adding that the skills help them to be independent when released.
“For some prisoners, especially those that have spent years or decades of their lives locked up, getting out comes with a mixture of overwhelming joy and anxiety. They often want to start over, but don’t know where to start. They need somewhere to live and work. They also need counselling. That’s why programmes that help inmates reintegrate into the society are critical,” he adds.
Br. Linus notes that poverty has seen many people get locked up in prisons. He urges the government to empower youths with skills that can help them start businesses or be employed.
“If only we can manage to empower our young people by giving them relevant skills and creating employment opportunities, the number of prisoners can go down significantly,” he offers.
How do they go about it?
There are all kinds of experts in prison hence making it easy for Fr. Grol’s Welfare Trust team to implement its goals.
“In prison, we have pastors, doctors, teachers and many other professionals who we use as trainers. Inmates enjoy being taught by fellow inmates since they have a lot of things in common. Our main work is to coordinate how the schools are run, and help them get textbooks and other important materials for teaching,” he notes.
He further points out that the government chips in by paying fees to the relevant examination bodies. Since the inception of the welfare programme, they have released a significant number of graduates with some of them currently running their own businesses.
For those who get equipped with technical skills, they provide them with tools of trade to start life outside jail.
“You can never go wrong with education and nothing urges us to go on more than seeing an ex-inmate picking up the pieces of life through the skills they acquired in prison.
We give tools of trade to all people who pass through our hands when they are released from prison. We also do follow up to find out how they are fairing and we can proudly report that most of them are doing great,” he says.
Apart from providing prisoners with education, the trust also helps those with fractures by providing them with crutches, and for the extreme cases, wheelchairs. However, running the trust has not been without its fair share of challenges.
Br. Linus says that the main challenge facing their organisation is lack of enough books and learning materials for their students.
“We are urging people who have novels, magazines, or any other kind of donations to pass them to us or even take them to any prison near them. Most prisoners want to advance themselves and they are interested in reading so lets assist them where we can. Prisoners are people just like us with dreams and ambitions. We are the people to help them achieve that,” he reiterates, dispelling the notion that inmates don’t deserve a better life.
Accept ex-prisoners back into the community…
Br. Linus appeals to prisoners’ relatives to love and always take care of them since anyone can find himself in prison. He also urges the larger society to support families whose member or members have been incarcerated.
He notes that offenders, and sometimes their families, are some of the most vulnerable and socially excluded people in the society.
“Prisoners’ families suffer from stigma, social isolation, financial difficulties and changes in living arrangements as well as physical and mental health problems,” he notes.
“The moment ex-prisoners step off the bus once released, a daunting challenge stares them smack in the face – where to find a safe place to sleep that night. Very few prisoners have a loving family waiting for them to come home.
Instead, family members may have died, moved away, or made it clear the ex-offender is not welcome. Sometimes there are legal reasons why the ex-prisoner cannot go home. As a result, many newly released prisoners end up in homeless shelters. We need to learn forgiveness and embrace ex-inmates back into the community,” he concludes.
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