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Saturday 21 September 2019
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There’s another side, Gary

TO: Police Commissioner Gary Griffith

Dear Sir: I write to you today not only as a journalist, but also as a concerned person who has dedicated ten years of my life to volunteer work in our nation’s prisons. I went into our prisons to understand this country better after every member of my family became a victim of crime.

In prison, I have learned to see our country through the eyes of many young men who used to be in gangs. I watch this country now through the lens of poverty, irrelevant education and marginalisation. Once upon a time, I thought I possessed empathy skills, but that was before I met a young man in the Port of Spain Prison who taught me how to see our country through everyone’s eyes.

From this young man, I learned we will never solve crime if we continue to create obstacles that prevent communication. It is important that we all understand the issues and concerns; the lifestyle and the emotions of those who live on the opposite side of that fence which forms a barrier between the haves and have-nots in this country.

The media help us to do this, and this is why I felt disheartened and worried when I read newspaper accounts on February 19 in which it is said that you claimed that the media glorified gang culture. Freedom of the press is an important link in the communication network that allows citizens to make informed decisions, and I feel duty-bound to say this.

Late last year, I confess, I wrote a column called “In praise of gang leaders,” which I hope made readers think. The column did not seek to glorify gang leaders, but it did examine how efficient gang leaders operate in the dysfunctional society that defines us.

Gang leaders have taken the poor, young men that society has thrown out of our schools after they were made to feel stupid and they have given these young men a sense of purpose – misguided as it is – in a nefarious place that we have created as much as the gang leaders that everyone scorns.

Gang leaders recognise the gifts that every gang member I have ever met possesses: unwavering loyalty and an aching desire to belong to a family and a society – even though the very support systems they seek have failed them.

The young men I meet in prison are often bright and creative and their lives could have gone in a totally different direction with the right education. These incarcerated young men, who often wait a decade for capital cases to go through the justice system, have taught me to curb my anger and disappointment and probe deeper for solutions. They have made me a community organiser inside of our prisons where I find funding for skill-based programmes while I offer opportunities for education and communication.

Right now, our all-star prison debate team, which calls itself Team Intellect, is engaged in debates with the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT), and they won their first debate by 360 points.

Over the years, I have learned to confront my fears and my prejudices as I open the lines of communication. I know you are doing your job in the way you most see fit, but I hope that you will examine successful crime-fighting models around the world and see that they demand communication more than guns.

For many years I had been bitter and angry about crime and the police who failed me in every instance of crime that collided with my life. I reacted the only way I know how: I took up a project with the police, which was supported by your Assistant Commissioner of Police Patsy Joseph, when she was superintendent of the Mounted and Canine Branch. Former acting police commissioner Stephen Williams sanctioned this project with the canine police.

I learned much from your dedicated police officers who are dog handlers. They taught me the same invaluable lessons about communication that I learned in prison, and I am no longer bitter or angry. They gave me back my respect for the police.

The lesson is this: we cannot afford to marginalise anyone in this society. We all need to communicate better and seek solutions to our problems. So, Mr Griffith, I take this opportunity to invite you to our next debate with UTT. I want you to see how we are teaching young men invaluable communication skills in our prisons. Please come and see the other side of the story.

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