Short visit lifts prisoners’ spirits, but...
THEY had only 10 minutes.
Ten minutes to catch up on years of absence from their loved one’s lives; 10 minutes to kiss and hug them; 10 minutes to wish them a Merry Christmas.
“Seven minutes left,” trumpeted a hard-faced warder, his announcement doing nothing to assuage the anxiety of the inmates on Thursday at the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre.
They are only allowed this physical contact with their relatives three times yearly. The next will be in Easter, then in summer, but with far less fanfare.
“Five minutes left”, then “two”, then “one” — the words crumpling excited faces, especially those of young children , into canvases of tears and sorrow.
“Me love you, man. Tek care,” groaned Uriel Wray, reluctantly freeing himself from the clutches of his teary-eyed girlfriend.
“Just cool, man; me soon see you,” promised an elder Roy Graham in the distance, his daughter and grandson forcing a wry smile for his appeasement.
But the comment offered little reassurance. Graham is serving a 30-year sentence for murder and is now trying to set himself “straight” for parole.
“Hurry up. Come on, guys,” pressed the warder, the sea of khaki pants and white T-shirtclad inmates slowly separating from their more colourfully dressed relatives.
It was time for them to make the sobering trek back to their cells — through a dark underground tunnel stretching across Tower Street into the adjacent prison. Some wiped tears from their eyes as they parted company, waving goodbye as their children threw tantrums.
The occasion was made possible by Steadman Fuller, the Custos of Kingston, and the Lay Magistrates Association of Jamaica (LMAJ). The meeting was the highlight of a Christmas treat put on for the spouses and children of inmates at the prison.
So important was the occasion that inmates displayed their best behaviour in the weeks leading up to it, said Department of Corrections Commissioner Lieutenant Colonel Sean Prendergast.
“I really feel good for the opportunity, because it gives you somebody else to deal with apart from prisoners,” said Wray, who has been incarcerated for four years on gun-possession charges. “More time prisoners are kind of ‘frass’ with pure negativity. So when you see your people dem is more joy, more positivity, yu feel closer to home,” he continued, scanning the crowd of relatives slowly walking toward the meeting area for a familiar face.
“When you go back into the prison you feel lighter; some likkle ‘preements’ weh a man did have, dem gone,” he said. “It even better when yu have a female come visit yu; when a man see him woman him feel more relax, him feel more calm a go back inside,” he said as his girlfriend sneaked up beside him and wrapped her arms around his waist.
Much more was hanging on the occasion for Graham, it seemed.
While most inmates brought juices and other snacks purchased in the prison’s commissary as gifts for their relatives, Graham carved a variety of wooden trinkets and toys, on which he painted the Jamaican flag.
Those were his gifts, he said.
“It’s a joy, ’cause me incarcerated for a good time, and when your family come and associate with you it look like you can fit back into society. It mean that somebody out there remember you,” he said. “Is 30 years [I got] before parole, and is 20 year me gone yah now. So I don’t know what will gwaan for me in the long run. I just have to hope.”
Asked about his craft items, he said: “I made them for my family to give as a gift. Me don’t have anything more to do with the time so I just build them to pass the time — trinket box, rocking dolly, anything in craft.”
With that, he brought the interview to an impromptu end to hug his gleeful daughter.
Ricardo Roberts, who is serving time for robbery, was also joyful.
“You have to wait months before you can even get a chance to see your people dem, much less fi touch dem. So all over it is just a happy feeling,” he reacted, before greeting his mother and siblings.
The next time any of these inmates will see their relatives — between now and Easter — it will be behind a re-enforced glass mirror, said Baldwin Collins, superintendent in charge of the prison. That meeting will take place inside the prison and will feature far heavier security, he explained.
Collins said the group of inmates was the fourth to see their relatives for the day. The previous batches were allowed 20-minute visits. However, the time had to be shortened to accommodate the growing number of relatives who turned out for the event, he said.
Next door, on the grounds of the Prison’s Sports Complex, hundreds of children and their guardians awaited their turn to visit relatives. As they waited, they were fed, entertained by Tarrus Riley, Dean Fraser, a magician, a dancing clown, and a Santa Claus. Two bounceabouts and a merry-go-round were also placed on the property to keep the kids occupied.
Children were also given stationery to make cards and drawings for their relatives.
But still a pall of gloom pervaded the air. There were armed police and correctional officers everywhere.
A 17-year-old girl sat despondently as she fixed a card for her stepfather, who has been locked up five years now for robbery with aggravation.
“I don’t want much for Christmas. I just want the person reading this to remain in my life forever,” she wrote. The teenager anticipated that her stepfather will break into tears as he normally does whenever she visits. She braced herself for it, explaining: “He cries because he knows that he can’t spend as much time with us and that he can’t help out financially with things.”
Nearby, Angella Stevenson helped her three-year-old grandson Sanjay to write: “To my Father, Andre Williams, from your son, Sanjay. I love you, dad. Just hurry up and come home to me — Sanjay”.
Stevenson, speaking of the infant’s despair, recounted: “One day he had 50 dollars and he said he is going to buy a pair of shoes for his father because is long time him don’t see him. I feel it in my bones when him say it,” she said. “I feel cut up about it because it is stressful; at times is me alone have to take care of his two sons. I just hope him behave himself in there. Is a lot of pain him put me through, but I still love him. This is just a process. I hope when he comes out he will be a better person,” she said.
Her sentiments were shared by Fuller.
“Of the 1,600 inmates who are here today, at least 90 per cent of them will one day come back out on the streets and about 70 per cent don’t get any regular visits from families,” said Fuller.
“When they come back out, some of them don’t know where to go or have anybody to contact, and as a result you will find some inmates who want to get back in. Inside there is a sanctuary, inside they get a shelter, they get a meal, and they have a community of friends,” he added.
“So this [treat] is a way that we are trying to bridge that gap, a way for families and friends to pave the way for re-integration into society,” he continued.
In the meantime, Tarrus Riley — who after much effort was able to convince a few female patrons to stand up and dance to his music — offered encouragement to the prisoners.
“It is rough, and none of us are immune to anything, so we just have to give thanks and hopefully we can cheer up some people in the holiday,” he said. Both he and Fraser were presented with tokens for their participation.
“Well, it is always a difficult situation for these people to deal in society. None of us are perfect, and any one of us can find ourselves in this position,” said Fraser. “We are therefore grateful to be in this position, to be a part of this mission, and we just hope that dem [inmates] get some kind of rehabilitation so that dem can come out and be a good part of society.”
Only 1,600 inmates were allowed to see their relatives on Thursday. The other inmates benefited from last year’s Christmas concert, and were thus was ineligible to participate in this year’s activities. This is the second year that the Office of the Custos of Kingston and the LMAJ were participating in the initiative.