I hope you can take a minute from your far too busy schedule, which most likely includes dealing with unimaginable pressing issues, to read this letter about some inmates – or clients as prisons now call them – who have taught me so much about the freedom and values so many people who don’t work in prison take for granted.
Tomorrow is a milestone in a four-year journey that culminates in a wish come true for me when our all-star prison debate team meets a University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) debate team to argue an important topic: Are people born to be criminals or are criminals a product of society?
We have come a long way from the prison debates that began with my class in Port of Spain Prison four years ago. I hope all of your officers are as proud of this all-star team as I am.
The programme officers from Carrera, Maximum Security Prison (MSP), Golden Grove Remand and the Eastern Correctional Rehabilitation Centre (ECRC) did an exceptional job to make sure the all-star team represented debaters from their institutions. They really went above and beyond the call of duty.
Although this began as an assignment to provide a visual image for persuasive writing in my Port of Spain English class, I soon recognised this was a way for inmates to polish their communication skills and get their voices heard. Debaters on my Port of Spain Prison team used to feel so buoyed by their debating experience, they felt high with confidence for months after the debate.
Every debater from every team in all eight prisons told me how much the experience meant to them, and still I could not fathom the depth of their gratitude until a recent visit to the all-star team two weeks ago when I told them I was organising prizes for them.
“I thought cash prizes would be nice so you have a little money when you go back out there,” I said, and without hesitation, they said, “That would be nice, but the money will be gone soon or later. What we really would like are trophies or medals so that we will always have something to remember and when we go back out in the free world we can show our children what we accomplished while we were in prison.”
Again, and again they surprise me and make me proud. First of all, they gave up whatever programmes they were in and agreed to stay together in one prison so they could maximise their time preparing for the debates. I imagine this to have been most difficult for the two inmates who could see the sea every day in Carrera.
Our lead debater, who emerged as the number one debater out of 80 inmates from eight prisons created an exquisitely crafted thank you card with red roses, butterflies and hearts for me the other day to express his gratitude. The details are amazing down to the bar code on the back. He has only lived on the streets or in prison since he was 11 years old, and the debates, he says, provide a feeling of accomplishment and define the life and the opportunities for an education that he never had.
I told the debate team on Saturday that I don’t know if they will win or lose, but regardless, they have to come away from these debates feeling that they are winners, which means that they got the message they want to convey out there. Volunteering in prison and working with the debate team has ensured that I never take freedom of speech for granted.
I take nothing for granted after working with the individuals on this debate team. I have learned much about pride, perseverance, teamwork and hope from them. Once again, I am amazed at the talent and the capability I see in prison – both of which was never discovered or nurtured in society.
It is so important to have a voice in society. That voice feels lost to those in prison. The debates have changed that feeling. I thank you for the opportunity to work alongside these men who have earned my respect for their commitment and intellectual ability. They represent prisons and they represent this society. They do have a voice. They are using it, and I am proud to stand beside them as they strive to contribute to this country. I am looking forward to tomorrow.