IT IS SHAPING up to be a very merry Christmas for me. That’s because I have a new class beginning in the Port of Spain Prison on Thursday. Twelve men will be taking a certified barbering class that I got funding for.
It’s a big step for these men, and a big step for me because this represents a totally new mindset I have developed since I began teaching in the prison system ten years ago. I have been moving away from an emphasis on academic subjects, so in many ways this barbering course represents the culmination of my learning experiences in prison.
To sum it all up, this is what I have learned:
1. Few inmates are going to come out of prison and walk into a job, no matter how many piles of CXC subjects they have accrued.
2. For the most part, people aren’t willing to give former inmates a chance for a new beginning – even if they have been wrongfully charged and are innocent.
3. Academic subjects are invaluable, but only in the sense that inmates have to want to take them to develop their own knowledge and thinking skills. Academic subjects are not a ticket to a job or life after prison. A pile of subjects is unlikely to get anyone a job. I have known young men who have ten passes and still can’t get a job.
So, I am taking a new direction now. I organise more and more skill-based programmes – like this barbering class, PVC furniture making and decorative tiling. Next year I hope to add a laminating class and some agriculture classes along with some workshops in business branding and management.
I want inmates to be able take charge of their own lives when they return to the “free world,” and I don’t want any former inmate to depend on anyone for a job or a new life. They must be able to walk out of prison as empowered, independent individuals capable of running their own businesses.
As I always tell the young men in prison who are trying to reclaim their lives, “This society is not making the leaders I want to see out there so we’re going to make them here in prison and send them back out into the free world. We’re going to make the leaders we want to see in this country.”
I am confident that we are accomplishing this goal slowly but surely.
The inmates who participate in my programmes have impressed me with their diligence and their willingness to reclaim their lives. These young men have a sense of loyalty that it is difficult to fathom. Gang leaders know about their fierce sense of loyalty and they exploit that, but society doesn’t recognise how to channel that loyalty into something positive that can benefit this country.
Every young man I know in prison wants a chance to live a decent life. They want a family and a job. They want to feel values in this country. In prison, they live for their children. They look forward to the reading programme developed through my Port of Spain Prison library where they read to their children during family visits. They want their children to enjoy reading and learning. Most of all, inmates want their children to succeed in school.
It didn’t take much for me to realise that I could offer many more opportunities through skill-based programmes than academic programmes simply because having skills decreases their dependence in every way.
Too many people in this country want government handouts, and they don’t want to take charge of their own lives. We don’t feel that way in prison. We want the power of being in charge of our own lives. We are putting that irrelevant education that society offered behind us and taking advantage of better ways of learning.
These young men in prison, who were once made to feel like failures in society because they didn’t learn the way others in their classes learned, now know they are as capable as anyone else. Every individual can contribute to this society.
When the new year comes, we will continue to move forward with all of the challenges we face in prison. It’s not easy, but I believe in these young men, and my wish is that more people will learn to believe in them. So, it is shaping up to be a very merry Christmas for me – one filled with hope for the future.