I’ve neglected this blog for a long time, but now I will use it to talk about my very interesting summer job: prison rehabilitation in Kingston, Jamaica.

The group I’m working with, Students Expressing Truth (SET), operates in three different institutions around Kingston, and they’re all drastically different from each other. I’ll try to describe all three on this blog, starting first with Tower St.

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The Tower St. Adult Correctional Centre was called the General Penitentiary before the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) made an attempt to focus on the correctional side of their duties over the punitive side. A brick and concrete fortress with sentry towers and 20 ft. tall walls with barbed wire on top by any other name, however, is just as depressing, and many Kingstonians just refer to it as “GP” anyway.

TSACC is the largest correctional center in all of Jamaica, housing (as of June 22nd, 2007) 1,703 inmates, all male but not all adults–some juveniles get put in Tower St. too. It is one of the highest-security facilities on the island as well, with only Spanish Town Adult Correctional Center in the nearby parish of Portmore as competition. Unlike Spanish Town ACC, however, Tower St. has no death row. It does, however, serve as a receiving center for new inmates in the corrections system, who are often put into Tower St. before a better fit is found. All of these traits means that Tower St. is often considered the heart of the corrections system, and therefore an extremely important site for changes in rehabilitation.

Tower St. has a truly formidable facade that is more reminiscent of a castle than a prison–a huge brick wall stretches out along the street, topped by multiple rolls of razor wire and punctuated by old sentry towers, manned 24 hours a day by correctional officers with sniper rifles. In the center of the wall is the entrance proper, a brick mass that is far taller than the walls which consists of a side visitor’s box, a door for officers and visitors dropping off items, and a huge, heavy metal gate which is opened only to let DCS vehicles in and out of the facility. Armored DCS vehicles can often be seen near the entrance, preparing to drop off inmates or transfer them to and from Tower St.

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Visitors to the facility normally have to follow extremely strict guidelines. They wait their turn in a shaded area across the street, where vendors sell drinks and snacks to occupy the anxious families of inmates. Inmates are only allowed 2 face-to-face visits a month, but relatives are allowed to drop off food and other supplies every Wednesday. All visitors to the facility have to follow a strict dress code–no revealing clothing, no shorts or shorter-than-knee-length skirts for girls, no bustline, no sleeveless garments. Though it is not officially in the dress code, I was once reprimanded for having sleeves that were too short, so I had to buy a XL white t-shirt to cover up my standard issue babydoll T. What you can bring in is equally restricted, although those guidelines seem to be much more flexible. Cell phones are never allowed–not that they would be much use with the signal jammer on the premises–and cameras can only be brought in with express permission from a high-ranking officer. As mentioned before, relatives are allowed to bring food and supplies, but these are thoroughly searched to ensure that no weapons are hidden inside. The content of the supplies is also restricted in a somewhat arbitrary fashion–even though the sign on the wall states clearly that watches, jewelry, sunglasses, and radios are not allowed to be given to inmates, many inmates have these supplies and there seems to be some confusion even amongst the officers about whether or not they are still prohibited.

Of course, Kevin and I get to follow slightly different procedures. We usually walk right into the door used by the officers with minimal questioning, and go straight to visitor registration where they always 1) laugh at the pronunciation of my last name, 2) confiscate my cell phone, and 3) take forever in finding a free officer to escort the two of us to the radio station. The visitor registration area, part of the outermost ring of the facility, is an exceptionally depressing place despite (or perhaps because of?) its light teal walls; the occasional odor due to garbage trucks waiting their turn out and the two abnormally young prison guards holding assault rifles are probably contributing factors.

Once an escort is located, we pass through the first of many metal gates into the area between the first and second rings. Turning around right now, the motto of the prison is visible in big red letters, reading “MOTTO: NONE SHALL ESCAPE”–cheerful. We then pass through the second ring itself, which hosts a large number of administrative facilities as well as inmates. It is here that the catcalls begin in earnest, with inmates who have been allowed out of their cells but not out of their sections actually surrounding us while many of them attempt to get my attention. This seemingly unsupervised contact with inmates with life sentences was surprising at first, but Kevin explained that the guards are actually very in-tune with which inmates are likely to cause trouble and what that trouble often looks like before it starts, such that warning signals are usually noted quickly and dealt with without any visible disturbance to the untrained eye.

Past the second ring is the large inner courtyard, inside which many more buildings exist. The courtyard is divided into sections by–what else?–barbed wire fencing. However, since the fences are chainlinked, there is a misleading sense of openness and, especially during “fly-up” (when prisoners are allowed outside), it appears the inmates are more or less completely free to roam. The incredible amount of barbed wire, though, still manages to make the scene apocalyptic.

The buildings where the inmates are housed are a lot less institutional than would be expected for a high-security facility. The side facing the courtyard has a metal grill instead of a wall, so that one can look up into the corridors. On these grills, inmates have crafted a variety of ways to hang-dry their clothing, resulting in a surprising amount of color. Some inmates who aren’t allowed to come into the courtyard stand at the grill, observing everything that is happening and occasionally commenting with varying degrees of subtlety. Others in the courtyard walk by and press against the fence, curious about the outsiders who have come into their world.

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Inside the “Cultural Centre”, where the radio station and recording studio are housed, the environment is immediately different. The air-conditioned, brightly-colored computer lab is filled with quietly busy inmates and humming with music or radio broadcasts. Inmates are sometimes just sitting around chatting, but lately they’ve been spending a lot of time poring over newspapers to prepare for their “News/Weather/Sports” segment that airs at 11:45. Davis, the inmate that was elected Station Manager by the others, looks over shoulders and jots things down in his notepad, making sure that everything is running according to plan.

The computers in this lab are operational but not networked, and since the radio station has been occupying most of the attention, they’ve gone mostly neglected. At last visit, however, there were plans to start computer orientation courses for the general inmate population soon.

The SET group at Tower St. is larger than that of the other institutions. The executive body whom we usually meet with boasts 11 inmates with 5 supervising correctional officers. There are currently 11 on-air DJs for the radio station, some of whom are also on the executive body. The SET inmates I’ve met have all been friendly, humorous, and eager to learn–a big difference from the general attitude outside. At meetings, they voice their opinions of the way things should be done, but still look to Kevin for approval most of the time. The immense amount of respect and gratitude they have for Kevin is immediately evident–they understand that he has their best interests in mind, truly rare in a system where that isn’t true of most authority figures.

A look at SET FM’s current programming schedule offers a glimpse at the inmates who make up the group. The day starts, as demanded by the inmates, with “SET Devotion”, 15 minutes of prayer led by an inmate who has been elected the Chaplain of SET. Later on, “Rhythm Plus” or “The Vibes” provides continuous music before a more serious round of programming comes on. For two hours a day, talk programs by inmates, for inmates put issues related to personal growth and institutional living on the table. “My Experience”, for example, is a series of interviews with inmates who are not necessarily in SET about their experiences both on the streets and while incarcerated. On other days, “Society Interaction” and “Family Link” discuss how inmates should restructure the way they look at society and family, and also give tips for maintaining connections to both while behind bars. “Healing Time” focuses more on restorative justice, and how the inmates can overcome their own troubles and reach out to those that they’ve hurt, while programs like “Corrections Corner” and “Health Tips” allow authorities a slice of the action. One of the most promising programs of the bunch is “Beyond Boundaries”, a talk segment with a Rastafarian DJ encouraging the inmate population to see beyond the boundaries of their respective religions.

The recent ribbon-cutting of the radio station means that Tower St. is the focus of Jamaica’s rehabilitation efforts right now, and this definitely shows in the staff’s relative willingness to cooperate. However, much work remains to be done–we need to get internet into the station so that we can stream the radio programs, we need to figure out a legal structure for the recording studio so that outsiders can’t just come in and exploit talented but trapped inmates, and we need to get going on the computer training. There’s a lot of work that remains to be done, but the vibe coming out of the SET lab remains upbeat and positive. Already, other inmates are starting to get curious about the program. If that curiosity can be channeled into participation, Tower St. will become a completely different place in just a few years.

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