Sunday, June 20, 2004

Ja: Jail ain' make to ripe fig, but some can ripen there

Robert James went to prison a bitter man. After all, he says, he wasn't even guilty of the illegal possession of firearm and shooting with intent charges on which he was convicted....

That was five years ago.

Today, James, 34, is no longer the angry young man who spent the early portion of his incarceration plotting vendetta killings of cops and politicians. He's channelled that anger into a zeal to help rehabilitate persons still in prison, while at the same time warning others of the horrors of jail.

"I spent four years and three months in prison. It was a wicked and terrible experience," he says. "Mi wouldn't want even mi enemy to experience what mi go through in prison. I would love other people to hear my opinion and not go down this road."
"Once you are in prison and experience it, you regret what you have done. You are forced to stay with several people in a very small place for long periods of time. You don't get to bathe as often as you wish. They say you should bathe once per week, but sometimes you are lucky if you can get water in a bottle to freshen up," he explains.

"People will kill you for nothing at all. The warders can't protect your life because they don't monitor some of the cells. So a man can stab you for stepping on his foot, and by the time the warder reach, yu dead.

"If you are bathing in a bucket and your bath water splash and catch a man he could say that you 'grounds' him and him could stab you for that. So you have to be very careful. I have seen more than 19 men killed during my four years for simple things like that."

Allegations of homosexuality, he says, can also get you killed. "They have a section for homosexuals called 'Boys Town'. But sometimes men can pull a fast one on you and you get sent over there - even if you are not gay. For example, if a man report that he saw you masturbating, then they could put you over there."

The harsh prison conditions combined with abandonment by family, James insists, often leads to many prisoners leaving the institutions as vengeful and hurt individuals.
"They don't have anything to do, and the devil find work for idle hands," he says. "Most a di crimes that happening on the road are arranged from inside the prisons."
Now comes the rehabilitating grace:
James, who has been on the outside now for just over a year, was actually sentenced to seven years, but was paroled after four-and-a-half years, based on his good behaviour and involvement in rehabilitation programmes.

"I spent a few months at the General Penitentiary (Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre) first. Initially mi did a think fi form a gang - a vigilante group - we would train and equip ourselves while we were in there and then just kill when we come out," he explains. "I met a guy in there name Muslim. He was very revolutionary and we would sit and plan di type a gun we would want to run di place when we got out."

But his plans were thwarted by a rehabilitation programme started in the prisons by Psychologist Desmond Green.

"Mr Green started teaching us about Reverence for Life. At first we were sceptical about his principles, as he tried to teach us about relaxation and deep breathing and so on," says James. "At first we did not grasp his ideas but later, when he brought in Kevin Wallen (a businessman) to give us motivational talks, we started responding to the programme."
Between Green and Wallen, the programme expanded to teaching inmates computer skills.

"We (Muslim and I) started questioning ourselves. We realised that it did not make sense blaming others for what had happened to us because we had played a role too. Eventually we scrapped the plan to form the gang and to kill off police and politicians," says James, an aspiring deejay who was born in Tivoli Gardens in Kingston.
James believes that one of the biggest lessons he learnt from the Reverence For Life programme was that he had to take responsibility for the actions that landed him in prison.
His newly acquired sense of accountability and responsibility eventually led him to start a group called Students Expressing Truth, which, with Wallen's help, teaches inmates to read and write, as well as basic computing skills.

"In my four years (in prison) I associated with many men who did a lot of crimes in the 1980s, and when you talk to them you realise that most of them can't even spell their names," says James, who attended both Ruseas and Vere Technical high schools before deciding to embark on a career as a deejay using the stage name Charlie Chemist.

"Most of the ghetto man that turn bad man don't have much education," he says, "and that is why we have to try and educate them while they are in there. Because if not, they are just going to come back out to a life of crime because they can't do anything else."

In the few hours when he was not locked in his cell, James and a few other inmates would sit under a tree in the yard where he taught them the alphabet.

"Kevin would carry in resources like the newspaper and we would use that to help di man dem learn fi spell dem name. Eventually, after the class started growing, Kevin brought in a computer and software with the alphabet so I could use that to take the pressure off," he says.

But when the programme started they had to deal with unco-operative warders who clearly didn't share their vision. "When we just start teach the inmates, the warders would run us in; dem seh that dem not supervising any prisoner outside learning anything because dem never go to training school for that. They said that they learnt to secure prisoners."

However, the programme continued to grow, and before James left the South Camp Adult Correctional facility in April 2003, a computer lab equipped with nine monitors and hard drives had been set up for the inmates.

"We would have classes from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. We would have nine inmates per hour. I was the librarian and lab technician," he says.

Since his release, James has been working with Wallen as a liaison person.

"Kevin started a concert called First Sundays Unchained, which happens monthly. He gets a few artistes to perform and after he pays them, whatever money is made goes towards acquiring computers for the prisons. So far, we have done four of the major prisons and want to go into some of the smaller ones."

"I am the PR person. I get the artistes and promote the event. I have also been asked by Mr Green to be the point person here for Reverence for Life," he says.

Green's Reverence for Life Programme has been studied by professors from Harvard and he was recently offered a fellowship to study there. Since his departure, the programme lapsed in the prisons, and during a recent visit here Green asked James to pick up where he had left off.

Now James is hoping that the programmes he is involved in can make a strong impact on the inmates before they are released.


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