Alvin clears off his space in the kitchen and brings over the makings of a big salad. His hair is neatly combed back, he’s wearing his uniform and, after taking a quick look out the window at the sparkling blue waters below, he gets to work. But Alvin, age 28, is not working in a restaurant catering to tourists visiting this beautiful Caribbean Island of St. Lucia. He is an inmate at the Bordelais Correctional Facility, and his clients are the more than 560 prisoners who live on this lonely cliff above the sea—surrounded by cement buildings and high fences topped with double rolls of razor wire.  

Alvin, who is serving five years for armed robbery, was one of eight children. Abandoned by his father early on, he had to help his single mother feed and support her growing family.  He dropped out after primary school and began to hang out with his friends. “I never liked school, to be honest,” he says. “Life was more interesting on the streets.” He made good money selling drugs, which enabled him to buy new clothes and expensive jewelry as well as help support his family.  To Alvin, drug dealing was his only chance to get ahead. “I never looked for a job, because I thought that since I’m from the ghetto, no one would hire me.” Now he’s spending his days living with four other prisoners in a single cell, in a compound for youth offenders.  Many remain behind bars for most of the day, often eating meals in the cell because of over-crowding in the prison.  Visiting the compound, I was struck by the deafening level of noise, as prisoners called out to each other from behind the bars, or raced down the stairs from the second story filled with pent up energy and anxieties that they could not release.

Yet in a strange way, Alvin says prison saved him. “I don’t regret being ‘inside,” I’ve learned so much.”  A smile lights up his young face when he describes the life skills training he received last year from the Caribbean Youth Empowerment Program that helped him control his own outbursts of anger, break up conflicts among his fellow inmates, and begin to make plans for the future. “For the first time in my life, I’ve learned to be patient… very patient.” Alvin also enrolled in the program’s culinary arts job training course. Because of his positive attitude and eagerness to practice what he’s learned, he is allowed to help out in the prison’s kitchen, an activity he clearly enjoys.

“This program taught me to believe in myself, to tell myself, don’t ever say you can’t accomplish something. This was a very new feeling for me; before, nothing really mattered.”  He is proud of what he’s learned. “I had never worked, and I could see I had some skills, that I had something special in me. To be honest, this is the only school I ever took seriously in my life.” 

My visit to the prison and my conversations with ten young prisoners broke my heart. But the experience also gave me a chance to see how critically important these employability skills training programs are to preparing young people like Alvin for the harsh realities (but also the opportunities) they will face when they re-integrate back into society.  And those opportunities do exist. Of the 22 youth who graduated from the pilot phase of our employability program, a remarkably high number of them—17—were employed once they got out of prison or off parole.  But just as importantly, I think, the program has helped these youth recognize they can make better choices in life, that they have the inner strength to make it on the outside—even against the odds, and that they have something positive to offer. I was surprised at how passionately some of the young men spoke about wanting to mentor other kids in their neighborhoods when they got out—by telling them how important it is to stay in school, to stay away from drugs, and to seize opportunities that come their way.

The larger issue, of course, is the urgent need to keep these often vulnerable, abandoned, and underserved young people out of prison in the first place.  Much good work has been done in the Caribbean and elsewhere to address this issue. But obviously not enough. We must add our voices to those of Bordelais’ young inmates—and incarcerated youth everywhere—to demand more educational and training opportunities while they are in prison. But we also need to be calling for far greater investments in young people’s lives before they get in trouble with the law, before they drop out of school, before they’ve given up on life. As Alvin says, “If I had known myself better, and had these kinds of chances, a lot of things in my life would be different today.”

I wish that on September 25, 2013, when Alvin walks out of prison, that I could be there to greet him and tell him yes, there are people here to help you rebuild your life. But I wish I could also tell him that we are going to make sure others like him will have many more chances to stay out of prison—because they will have greater support to finish school, greater access to job training programs, and more youth-friendly services in their communities. But for that to happen, legislators, business leaders, and government officials must all recognize that fixing this broken system will not only help young people thrive, but society as well.