Freed, but still in 'prison'
Ex-convict begs for a chance after arming himself with college education
THOMAS... mi wouldn't want anybody fi end up a prison; nobody at all. (Photo: Oneil Madden)

After spending almost 25 years of his life behind bars, 46-year-old Elvis Thomas now bets on a college education to give him an opportunity for a restart.

"Most people see ex-convicts as a liability to the society, but what I have been always waiting for is to get this degree or when I get it I just photocopy it and bring it back to the prison…and let them know that after 24 years, it's still not over. You still can come out and do something with your life. There's hope," Thomas told the Jamaica Observer.

After his release from prison at age 41, Thomas, through the help of a female who had visited him frequently while there, was enrolled at Excelsior Community College where he pursued an Associate of Science degree in Automotive Engineering.

"A lady visited me in prison for over four years…When I came out, she enrolled me in college. I didn't know I was going to college. I didn't know I could go to university, but I had some inclination, because while I was in prison she was the one who pushed me to do more CSEC (Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate) subjects until I had five. When I came out, she took me to Excelsior and said, 'Here is your college.' Excelsior people wanted me to go to UWI, based on my grades, but I could not afford a UWI tuition," Thomas recounted.

Thomas was charged in 1994, when he was only 17 years old, for capital murder, and was given the death sentence two years later.

During his time in lock-up at St Catherine Adult Correctional Centre, he sat five CSEC subjects English language, human and social biology, information technology, mathematics, and principles of business and obtained a grade one in all of them.

He said the prison afforded inmates the opportunity to pursue an education or learn a skill if they wanted a change.

"They brought in a school programme and opened a garage, a tailor shop, and a woodwork shop. So if you wanted to learn something, regardless of the conditions around you, if you really wanted to make a change, the facility is there to make some form of change in your life educationally and skills training," he noted.

Thomas told the Sunday Observer that he is grateful to be out of prison. He is remorseful for his actions and not boasting about being free because, according to him, several inmates have gone in for much simpler offences but have not come out.

"Mi wouldn't want anybody fi end up a prison; nobody at all. In the early 90s, prison was a nasty place. Health-wise, it was difficult. Inmates would mess in their bags and throw it all over the prison yard. Prison was a messy place. The simplest argument cost a man's life. Dark days," he explained.

Thomas stated that his implication in the murder was because of a poor relationship between him and his father.

"The whole reason I ended up in this thing, my father and I couldn't get along. And from I was 11 years old he decided that he was not going to take any more of my trouble in the house. From then, I was out in the streets and in and out of approved schools (juvenile prisons). The last such school was the Hilltop Juvenile Correctional Centre in Bamboo, St Ann," he pointed out.

"When I came back home to my parents, my father said that there was no place here for me at the house in Sandy Bay, Clarendon; so I found myself back on the streets at 17 going 18. And that was the time I was charged for murder," he continued.

Thomas disclosed that he used to associate with some older youth in his community, and one day they decided to sell a gun to a man who possessed a lot of United States dollars. He alleged that the men decided that they were going to pretend to sell the man the gun as a disguise to rob him of his US dollars. He said that on the morning of the planned incident, one of the team members was missing and he was asked to replace him.

After his conviction, and having served his time in prison, the mechanic said that college has changed his life.

"What I like about a degree is, they don't only teach you stuff that you come to learn about; they had a lot of Spanish, small business, and psychology. I didn't even want to do psychology; I wanted to know about cars. College changed my way of thinking. College helped me to get rid of some of the anger. I left prison as a bitter person and I had a lot of anger issues.

"The mission statement for the college is 'Transforming lives, nurturing global citizens'. Me going to Excelsior, it did just that for me. It transformed my life and helped me to be somebody that can represent in a global space," he highlighted.

Thomas noted, however, that life has been difficult socio-economically for him.

"Family support has been lacking. I now live in the ghetto, and when I came out, I had families who had houses that were empty, and they know I live nowhere, and when I turned to them for help, nobody wanted to help. Family has always been my Achilles heel."

He is grateful for the support of the church community, notably Braeton Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Portmore Seventh-day Christian Church, for moral and financial support.

"Braeton Seventh-day Adventist church did prison ministry. Since I've been out, they have helped me with food stuff. The first year after I came out, they gave me like $20,000 per month or food packages. They have been the biggest support," he said.

Thomas, whose childhood dream was to become a pilot, now hopes to become a businessman and open a signature shop.

"I have lost 24 years. I have always wanted to become a successful businessman. I never really formulated a plan until I went to college and had to write up a business report. I have been electronically inclined from a child. My father used to do a lot of stuff to the TV to prevent me from watching it, but I would always find a way to watch it," he said.

"Working on motor vehicles, the electronic part of it is where my mind is still drawn to most. I can do the mechanical work, but the electrical part, I am a wiz at that. I want to have a signature shop. It's an auto shop where you would get your spoilers, turbo chargers, unique dash set-up, special goods, and special rims; things that make your car look unique," Thomas told the Sunday Observer.

"I would love to get a little place to stock it with my signature goods. It would offer a combination of mechanical and electrical work. The only thing I don't do is body works and that is because I don't have any tools for it because I was trained to do body works," Thomas added.

He also aspires to travel one day to improve his economic fortunes.

"We live in a harsh economy. Losing 24 years is rough. Trying to catch up now in this economy is proving hard for me. I would love to reach overseas where I can get some increased earning power. I would love to reach Canada or America on a work programme. Three or four years of working, I may be able to achieve something," he noted.

The ex-convict also has a message for young men.

"There was a time when my parents, my elders people who wanted to see good for me they were speaking to me and I was like, 'Yow, backward days dem deh; a old days dem deh; a new time now; different generation, different time.'

"But the thing is that, the wisdom that guided back 100 years is the same wisdom guiding today. And not until I was in prison, doing hard time, before I realised that everything that my father was saying to me was true; 'If you are a young thief, you're going to grow up to an adult thief'.

"My father has always been saying to me, 'Try to get a skill, try to get your education because if you don't get either of them you're going to be like the guys that unload the flour from the big flour trucks'," said Thomas.

"Youths should learn to obey adults. It may sound like they're trying to hold you down or cramp your style now, but when you reach another 10 or 15 years, you're going to realise that everything that the adults had been saying is true. Just learn to trust people who have been set to guide over you," he pleaded.

Thomas said he also cautioned a younger family member who was involved in the defrauding scheme.

"Bro, don't make my mistake; scamming is not the way to go. Don't try to end up in prison for 20-odd years before you learn. Learn from me now," said Thomas, who noted that many Jamaican youth are now attracted to the flashy lifestyle and quick cash.

"All they can think about is chopping the line," he said.

"Getting a skill and getting an education, that's the best empowerment for a young youth," Thomas urged.

BY ONEIL MADDEN Sunday Observer writer

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