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Jamaica's inmates as agents of change

Emprezz
Golding

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

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What comes to mind when you think of a prisoner? Some would say irresponsible, selfish, ungodly, antisocial, 'wutless', and the list goes on.But how often do we stop to think about the potential of the incarcerated and their acquired self-reflexivity, drive to learn new skills and behaviours, renewed sense of purpose, and longing to reconnect with their families.

All human beings have the potential to rise from the ashes of a broken life, a belief shared by the Inmates as Agents of Change — a rehabilitation initiative led by the St Catherine Adult Correctional Centre. Founded in January 2012, Inmates as Agents of Change is a group of inmates working with correctional officers to formulate and implement developmental programmes in order to become positive contributors to their communities and living testimonies of change.

Some of the major rehabilitation programmes include the Sports Council, through which they coordinate all sporting activities; the 4-H Club, where they teach agricultural and farming techniques; and the Computer Lab, that provides information technology courses for the HEART Trust/NTA Level 1 certificate. Each programme is spearheaded by one of the inmates.

In September 2017, a quiz competition was launched. Inspired by TVJ's Schools' Challenge Quiz, Superintendent Herbert McFarlane — regarding quizzes as an impactful tool on their educational and mental development while encouraging friendly competition — envisioned one such competition for the inmates at the prison. And thus, with the endorsement of the Department of Correctional Services, The University of the West Indies, and the Men of God Against Violence and Abuse, the Herbert McFarlane Inter-Block Quiz Challenge was born.

I was invited to be a guest speaker at the final match of their quiz competition held on December 13 at the institution's chapel, followed by an award ceremony for the inmates. My team and I arrived in Spanish Town to an inconspicuous brown metal door tucked in the side of high wall with barbed-wire walls on White Church Street. We checked in our bags and while walking to the chapel I interacted with a few inmates, who appeared to be roaming freely on the prison grounds dressed in clothing of their choice. The chapel was decked out in Christmas decorations, and the furniture perfectly arranged for a quiz competition. There were scorecards facing the stage, a podium for the master of ceremonies, a projector screen for visual questions, and a table on either side for the two teams, each adorned with a buzzer light. There was even a DJ playing music. I mean, the production value was on point.

As with the Schools' Challenge Quiz, the Inter-Block Quiz Challenge covered a variety of topics — geography, maths, English language, you name it. The competing red and blue teams answered a series of questions that spanned three rounds, while red and blue flags were waved vigorously by the audience in a show of support. The events culminated with a victory for the blue team.

I found myself stunned by some of the questions that were asked; only God knows how I would have answered them. Although quiz competitions may be viewed as testing trivial material, they truly help participants to strengthen their general knowledge and increase their awareness of the world around them.

And then it was time for me to speak. I got up there with a trailer load of energy and preached to the inmates about their worth as powerful black men who cannot afford to let the system to beat them down and deem them as nothing. I was alarmed to discover that at least 75 per cent of these men were fathers. I made it my duty to remind them that their children need them and miss them. A mother cannot father a child, and when they do see their bundles of joy again, they need to 'man up' enough to accept the vulnerability of admitting that they were wrong. I advised, “You have to start planning your life from inside. Find 10 people that are in positions where you would like to be and study them. Devise a strategy for your life so that when you come out of prison you will be better men, better fathers, and better contributors to society.”

I could feel those words resonate with them. My heart was warmed by the notes I received from a few prisoners asking me to broadcast a 'big up' to their children and tell them that they love them. If nothing else, they must use that love for their children to kick-start their plan.

Talk Up Yout panellist and poet Kevaughn Ellis from Allman Town performed his engaging, cleverly articulated poetry for the inmates in which he acknowledged the struggles of the ghetto but highlighted the importance of changing your mindset despite your physical condition. He put it best when he said, “My address remains the same, but I don't live there anymore, and here I am now.”

A prisoner expressed that a few years ago his mother told him he was worthless and of no good and one day he would end up in prison. And there he was, lamenting that sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can break your heart forever. This is why it is crucial for our men to hear the words of upliftment from the likes of Kevaughn and myself, so that they focus their thoughts on positivity until it becomes a reality.

During the awards ceremony I had the pleasure of presenting the “Most Improved Youth” award on behalf of Talk Up Yout. A gigantic first place trophy was awarded to the winning team of the quiz competition. Before I left, the inmates gifted me with a beautiful handcrafted wooden jewellery box, accompanied by a laminated poem about the power of a woman, both created by the talented inmates.

I recorded a quick blurb for the prison's radio station (yes, they have a real radio station, 88.9 FM) and headed back to the entrance, where I spoke with some of the correctional officers, who expressed their disdain with their lack of recognition. According to them, other law enforcement officers are always rewarded with more praise, and they sometimes feel that even the inmates are better acknowledged. I understand how important and challenging their service is, and I hope to shine a brighter light on them (and even get them the more fashionable uniforms they requested).

All in all, my experience at the Spanish Town Adult Correctional Centre reminded me of the human instinct to pursue and persevere, and that each individual, no matter the circumstance, has the ability to dream. Focus on that dream, no matter what, and you can make what was once believed to be impossible possible. These inmates are purpose-driven citizens of Jamaica working with the guidance of law enforcement officers to achieve the best of their true potential and become valuable contributors to society.

What we need now is more programmes like those initiated by Inmates as Agents of Change, and to see more examples of men who have benefited from them, including regular updates of their lives after prison. I am looking forward to working alongside minister of state Pearnel Charles Jr and the correctional services to execute some programmes that will help our young, incarcerated men and women because I believe 100 per cent that motivation, inspiration, and guidance are the first steps to achieving any kind of change, growth and rehabilitation.

Let's help to guide the misguided. Let's believe in our inmates!

Emprezz Golding is a youth advocate, television host and executive producer/director. Send comments to the Observer or empresstv@gmail.com.

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