Redemption Songs

Four days ago, inmates of the Frederick Street prison in Port of Spain held a poetry reading. Prefaced with a lively band and mellifluous old-style calypso, one woman and five men read from a stage in the centre of the prison courtyard. Afterwards, the US activist who coordinated the event read extracts from her book about prisons in other parts of the world, with the help of local celebrities such as Machel Montano, and former Miss Universe contender Anya Ayoung Chee. Also present was the author Debbie Jacob whose memoir, Wishing for Wings, recounts her experiences as a CXC English teacher to inmates of the Youth Training Centre – a separate correctional facility. The audience was then serenaded by the singer Kees Dieffenthaller, who mentioned that his song, “Lion”, had been composed during a low point in his own life. Its chorus included the lines: “I am a lion, I am a fighter, for my book I’ll be the writer.” The entire event was part of the Bocas LitFest, Trinidad and Tobago’s week-long festival of words and ideas, and streamed live on Facebook.

Throughout the Caribbean, sharp declines in literacy – up to 40 percent of Trinidad is functionally illiterate – have affected the availability of and access to programmes that teach creative writing and poetry, especially in places like juvenile correctional facilities and prisons. This absence is particularly striking in Trinidad, an island that proudly showcases its creative wordplay in carnival tents and extempo competitions. The work read by the Frederick Street inmates clearly met a felt need and though it was of uneven quality, the underlying intensity was undeniable. Some poems referred to the outside world with mischievous humour: “life goes on/ children get born/ women get horn …”, others focussed, understandably, on the painful solitude of prison cells.  But there were also flashes of inspiration such as the simple but haunting line: “Every day my mind sings a Redemption Song.” When two condemned prisoners – garbed in spotlessly clean white clothes – read from the podium, the depth of their solitude, and the catharsis of the poetry, was palpable. Dozens of prisoners listened attentively and clapped respectfully, with an occasional cheer and fist pump when there was a particularly good line.

Irrespective of one’s feelings towards criminal justice in the Caribbean, Trinidad’s writing programme, and a similar music initiative in Jamaica, offer glimpses of what could be done to breathe new life and hope into our aging prisons – places that are invariably overcrowded and understaffed. Most if not all of our regional correctional facilities are cauldrons of hostility towards the outside world instead of places that prepare inmates for their return to society. This problem also becomes harder to solve when societies continue to implement policies that are merely punitive rather than taking practical steps to reduce prison populations and recidivism.

In the book “Incarceration Nations” Baz Dreisinger, the US-based legal scholar and activist who organized the Trinidad poetry event, notes that the social and financial toll of mass imprisonment – there are around 10 million prisoners worldwide, more than 20 percent of them within the US – has reached unprecedented levels. Just in California, for example, some 3,700 inmates “who have never committed a violent crime are serving twenty-five years to life” largely because of punitive sentencing guidelines introduced during a crime wave in the 1980s. Inexplicably, hundreds of prisons continue to be built long after the crime wave has receded. According to Dreisinger, between 1990 and 2005 the US opened a new prison every ten days.

Many of the pressures that gave rise to the legislation which filled America’s prisons with nonviolent offenders were also felt in the Caribbean. America’s war on drugs led dozens of other countries, including ours, to adopt drugs laws that displayed zero tolerance for minor offences yet offered none of the non-custodial alternatives or drug rehabilitation facilities available in the US. The overcrowding that resulted from legislation like our Narcotic and Psychotropic Substances Act turned regional prisons into places where young men – many on remand – were schooled in serious crime by more experienced inmates. The results were predictably dire.

In the near future Guyana will have oil revenues that could be used to modernise our prison facilities, particularly the Camp Street jail. But infrastructure is just a part of what needs to be addressed in our outmoded approach to criminal justice, incarceration and rehabilitation. Instead of passing harsher laws and building more prisons – the American mistake – we should remember than an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We should focus on helping youth to avoid crime, and giving prisoners skills that will allow them to rejoin their communities productively after their release. At the very least these should include the ability to read and write, and to express themselves creatively in words, images and music.

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