I was heading into this prison school with the intention to inspire and impact the lives of the inmates. I never expected that I would be inspired and impacted in return. Allow me to explain:
A team of 4 of us from Yayasan Generasi Gemilang were on our way to Sekolah Henry Gurney, Malacca. A correctional institute run by Jabatan Penjara Negara for juvenile youth with serious crimes. You may be wondering how we ended up going to prison. Well unlike most, we ‘mohon masuk penjara’ (requested to get in). I assure you, we are completely sane individuals. You see, for those 4 days, we would be running our computer literacy program ‘Next Gen XLR8’ (Sponsored by Microsoft Youthspark) for a total of 80 inmates so that they can be equipped with 21st century skills.
Before we entered the facility, we were required to go through a body search and the officers in charge pat us down to ensure we didn't bring anything illegal into the school. This included our wallets, phones or anything that could potentially be used as a weapon. This is standard procedure for staff and visitors before entering the facility.
Lush greenery outside Sekolah Henry Gurney.
The approval to go in didn't come easy. We had worked with youth-at-risk from approved schools (Sekolah Tunas Bakti) under the welfare department before, but this was a facility under the prison department--a secure place with high-risk youth.
Before the program started, we were given a brief by the Sergeant Major. He was a short man, probably in his 50s but well respected by those around him. He gave us a stern warning to be cautious around the youth, so we were not allowed to ask them any questions about how they ended up in prison. We nodded as the officers who stood around us remained expressionless.
In the hall before the session began.
A couple of friendly smiles greeted us right after this exchange. Two teachers who gave us a warm welcome and helped us set up the laptops we brought in for the program. Once everyone was seated, we started our program with Microsoft Powerpoint, where the students had to make a presentation about themselves. They had to list their favourite foods, dreams & ambitions, hobbies, and even their strengths & weaknesses in a slideshow and then present it in front of their friends. Here’s where we noticed something different.
In most schools we go to, the students would usually jot down their favourite food as Fried Rice, Burgers, Pizza, etc. But here, their favourite food was “Masakan ibu/ayah saya” (My parents' cooking). I had almost forgotten that some of these students had never seen their parents for years, others probably saw them through short visits over the weekend, but that was it.
Usually when we ask teenagers about their dreams, they would write down answers such as 'a fast car', 'a big house' etc. But when we asked these inmates to write down their dreams, we received answers such as:
“I want to make my parents proud”
“I want to change my parents' tears to happy ones”
“I want to be a useful person in society”
During the closing ceremony after 4 days and one of the teachers helping the student with his work.
And it wasn't just the youth that wow-ed us, even the teachers inspired us! Over lunch, they told us that they too, like us, requested to be placed in this school. They preferred teaching the students here simply because these students were so much more appreciative of education. We could really see the dedication and passion of the students but I wasn't expecting what I heard next.
“One of our students was a top scorer in the school, but he didn’t have enough money to further his studies. So as teachers, we got together and chipped in money for 6 months to help send the boy to college and get him on his way.”
It's no wonder the inmates referred to the teachers and officers as ibu/ayah (mum/dad).
The Henry Gurney students doing their powerpoint slides and budgeting.
Many of the students here have plans to study in college or university, and quite a number intend to become policemen or soldiers. We found this out when we taught them about resume writing through Microsoft Word. One might wonder how a youth with a past of wrongdoing could become a member of law enforcement. But our skepticism was met with reality on the final day. The stern faced Sergeant who briefed us in the morning had a secret that he was keeping. But I shall only reveal this secret at the end of this article.
The last thing we taught them through the program was making a simple financial budget using Microsoft Excel. They learnt the impact education had on their salary and realised how important it was to get a diploma or degree once they were released.
For the following days, the officers lightened up towards us. It was evident that they were impressed with the program when one said, “The only programs we get around here are motivational talks! It’s great to have a practical skills computer class for them. They really need it!” Even the teachers learnt a trick or two from our certified Microsoft trainer.
As we neared the last day, the officers took us for a tour around the school and showed us the trainings provided for the vocational stream in this prison school. Automotive repair, car painting, welding, wiring, tiling, bricklaying… All these were taught so that the youth would leave with a skill that would help them make a living outside the prison walls.
On the last day, it was time to say goodbye to all 80 of the students. Unlike normal schools, each of the students came to greet every member of our team with a handshake. As they shook our hands, some of them whispered to us with a smile on their face:
“Hanya 35 hari sampai saya bebas abang” (Only 35 days until I’m released)
“Hanya 60 hari lagi abang” (Just 60 more days)
“Saya akan jumpa abang di luar selepas ini” (I will see you outside this school soon)
“Terima kasih banyak abang” (Thank you so much)
The "Ibu" (mothers) and teachers of Sekolah Henry Gurney.
Before we left, we met up with the Sergeant one last time. In the back of my mind I was thinking about how the students here respected and looked up to individuals like this, and it was then that the Sergeant told us his little secret.
“I was from Henry Gurney before too. I was in their shoes exactly where they are today. Now I’ve been serving in the armed forces for over 30 years.”--A testament to the school, and proof that there is always hope!
This experience has opened my eyes to how the Jabatan Penjara Malaysia (Malaysian Prison Department), every teacher, and officer at Henry Gurney cares for these youth. Thank you for what you do and we can’t wait to go back to meet more amazing students.