A celebration in prison

Debbie Jacob
Debbie Jacob


IT’S STRANGE how a particular moment in time can be both exhilarating and sad. I seem to have many such moments working in the Port of Spain Prison so it should have come as no surprise to me that I would feel this strange mixture of feelings for my own book launch on the morning of June 23, a Saturday.

How do I convey the joy of being allowed to bring people into the prison to witness that historic event of the prison’s first book launch and sad at seeing inmates facing the challenges of their own personal history rise to the occasion of celebrating my book?

How can I make you hear the excitement in my students’ voices when they discuss Making Waves: How the West Indies Shaped the US in our CXC history class? Three students, Mark Hernandez, Brian Rambarran and Akili Charles, chose to read passages from their favourite chapters at the book launch. Locked away, waiting for their trial for years – which could turn into a decade – they find hope and joy in the stories of real-life heroes found in my book.

Mark chose the chapter on Oliver Perry because he found it fascinating that an American naval hero from the War of 1812 had been buried in Lapeyrouse Cemetery.

Brian chose the chapter on George Washington because that one-and-only trip the first president took outside of the US to Barbados saved the US war for independence in 1776. “We all know about Washington,” he said, “but we don’t know his connection to the West Indies.”

Akili chose the chapter on Jamaica’s Marcus Garvey, because Garvey had once fallen off a stage and he had been locked up in prison, but still turned out to be a hero.

The idea to have the book launch in the Port of Spain Prison came from my daughter, Ijanaya, who realised from reading the book that I had begun the five-year-long journey to write Making Waves while teaching CXC Caribbean history in YTC. From YTC to the PoS Prison, the inmates’ love for history has astounded me.

When Ijanaya wrote to Prisons Commissioner Gerard Wilson about having the book launch, she got an immediate, enthusiastic acceptance from the commissioner who values every opportunity to educate his “clients” and people from the “free world,” as the inmates refer to that volatile place outside prison.

Ijanaya and my library assistants Danielle and Jessica hand-wrote each programme on hand-made paper from Katmandu, Nepal. Ijanaya burned the edges to make each programme unique.

Supt of the PoS Prison Charmaine Johnson suggested using Outfit International, the prison band led by programmes officer David Lowe, for the event. I had requested Lord Invader’s Rum and Coca-Cola, Chicago, Chicago and Trouble in Arkansas, along with Freedom, Freedom, a remake of the Banana Boat Song, which protesters sung in the civil rights movement and the band learned the music in less than two weeks.

Together, the commissioner, Ms Johnson, Asst Commissioner Fabian Alexander and programmes officer Joel Roberts, the inmates and the guests made this one of the most memorable events of my life. Because of journalist Ira Mathur and Gary Aboud, everyone had Chinese food at this book launch.

When Commissioner Wilson said no amount of money or no accolade could ever compensate me for what I do in prison, he sure was right. It is the feeling of giving that sustains me. For me, working in the Port of Spain Prison is not a job. It’s a mission to make this country better. That book launch showed me for a brief moment in time that people from all walks of life can come together to celebrate a book that strives to uplift everyone through a sense of history.

As I said at the book launch, I work proudly in our prisons because I believe in Commissioner Wilson’s vision for restorative justice. I am proud to be associated with the commissioner, Supt Johnson, ASC Alexander and programmes officer Roberts, who epitomises what it means to work in the trenches.

Working in prison means I never take life or freedom for granted. Prison inspired two books I wrote – Wishing for Wings and Making Waves… Working in prison gives my life a sense of purpose and a sense of hope. In this sad place, I discover young men who possess creativity that has been overlooked by society, and I search for ways to make their stories known. This is why my book launch could have been in no other place than the Port of Spain Prison.


"A celebration in prison"

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