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Hold society responsible

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The tall green doors of jail opened. A prison guard peered out, looked me in the eye and slammed it shut.

I stood outside with three woman, one with a child, waiting for the guard to reappear.

“You’re waiting to visit family? What is he in for?” I asked the woman in the black hijab. “Murder,” she replied, the love in her eyes defiant, undimmed for the man inside, there to watch him debate.

The guard let us in. We surrendered our phones.

My colleague, Debbie Jacobs, who asked me to be a judge for a debate she organized between inmates arrived.

Debbie started working with prisoners ten years back after her son was gratuitously stabbed on the face to a pulp. By then she had been robbed repeatedly, for a decade, from the time she held her baby in one hand, a knife in the other, hearing bandits in her house.

“Who’s on the team?”I asked Debbie while waiting to be frisked along with a swelling group of visiting women and children.

“Twelve inmates charged for murder. Of them, only one is convicted. ”

Next, we were moved to a small room, harshly lit with neon bulbs. There were rows of booths, all divided, behind bars and bulletproof glass. Facing each one was a chair and a large phone.

A prison official took us to a room that once housed cells, painted in bright pastels by prisoners. It happened in seconds. I was facing 12 men in checked shirts bought and worn specially for this occasion. Almost all under 30. On each face, I saw shifting expressions, fear, excitement, an endless haunting sorrow and flickers of icy rage.

Not that of evil, cold blooded murderers. Debbie said ‘depression is anger turned inward, and anger is depression turned outward.’

“Why are they angry, depressed? Why did the people in the Beetham stone commuters?” You and I know. We did it to them. We left them, toddlers, children, to survive in poverty, ‘high-risk’ places you and I fear, with gang leaders, drugs, lack of shelter, food and running water, without fathers, struggling mothers, who sell their bodies for money, who turn to alcohol to make the misery around them bearable, let their children loose on drugs, alcohol, gang leaders, anything to numb the pain even if it kills them, or gives them a bullet at 18.

We let them into a biased education system that only allows supported children to succeed, spits out the rest. We threw them in jail, keeping them waiting for four to eight years of long days and nights for a hearing in the Magistrates’ and High courts.

They wait, seven squashed in dark cells made for two, with no fan, no running water, no toilets, just buckets and newspapers, rats scurry where they eat, where they defecate, sleep sitting down for 23 hours.

They are let out for one hour.

The inmates debated a difficult topic. “Are absentee fathers a major cause for young men joining gangs?’ They quoted Barack Obama, Shakespeare, poets, and a column I’d written years back.

They were distinct personalities, could be professionals with a chance in life—sharp, passionate, witty, articulate. They noticed there were no fathers in the audience. Gang leaders embodied the fathers, belonging they wanted.

I sat with a prisoner afterwards while he wept, as fellow inmates sat wrapped around by their women and children. No one visited him for eight months, his mother a prostitute, alcoholic, his brothers dead with Aids and a bullet, his son vanished. I could not comfort him.

When I walked out it was dark. The street was empty except for a man with a face that should be in the movies leaning up against a car.

He watched, silently smoking as I tried frantically to call for my ride home.

This flat dead tone on the phone is what inmates live with or, cleverly bypass. In those frantic moments I saw the abyss of their lives in and out of prison. Cut off either way. Endangered, unrescued, unloved.

Silently, the man, his face lit with tawny lamplight, handed me his phone. “You’re one of these who believes society is responsible, eh”? “I am,” I replied.

While being driven away I looked back with a strange sadness. I felt safer that night, with prisoners than I did outside, more connected with the unfiltered energy of human suffering, redemption and hope, than I do everyday on the increasingly barbaric streets and hearts of my fellow man, free in body, chained in spirit in Trinidad.


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