THE MESSAGE came last Tuesday afternoon. “Miss, thank you for everything you did for me…I’m free now.” In those heady, first moments of freedom, Akili Charles had thought to message me. But that is Akili – always kind, considerate and grateful.
After ten years, Akili and five other young men had their day in court and Magistrate Maria Busby-Earl-Caddle’s freed them of murder charges. Akili, Chicki Portello and Kareem Gomez – the three young men who appeared on the front page of the Guardian the following day, May 22 – had been my students in Port of Spain Prison.
I struggle now to find a way to describe the five years we spent together so that you can see beyond the newspaper pictures and see the men I knew. They made the most of their time in prison, preparing themselves to be more confident, communicative and productive citizens in spite of the injustices they suffered because of the long delay in the court system.
It is unconscionable for a case to take a decade to wend its way through the magistrates’ court and thankfully Magistrate Busby-Earl-Caddle made this case – one of 53 cases left behind by Marcia Ayers-Caesar – a priority.
I know it is tempting to pass judgment, even when men win their cases or they are thrown out of court, but I want you to see the side of Akili, Chicki and Kareem that I knew from my class.
Always quiet and contemplative, Akili managed to keep his gentle spirit in a place where noise reigns. He sat in a corner next to the wall in the back of the class, listening intently while we worked for two years on our radio soap opera. Akili emerged as an astute editor and continuity expert. He was the one who said, “You can’t say this…or you can’t do that because in season one, episode two, the character said or did this.” He has an amazing memory, but what impressed me the most is that he found a way to be heard in a normal voice, which is unheard of in prison.
Akili handled the rebuttal in the prison debates for the Port of Spain Prison team. Debating challenged Akili. He had the tenacity to hang in there and continue debating even after he suffered the undue wrath of his teammates when he once made a mistake. Akili, a practising Buddhist like his devoted mother, persevered.
Always jovial, Chicki the jokester also participated on the debate team and in the radio soap opera. His constant humour puzzled me. He came into the prison system as a juvenile and was transferred to adult prison because the State never had the time to hear his case so I’m guessing humour became Chicki’s strategy for survival.
When we worked on the radio soap opera, which was the story of how being in prison changed two friends, Chicki invented a complex, lovable lunatic, who survives by acting crazy. Or was it an act? His character eventually finagles a trip to the hospital where he creates all kinds of confusion when he tries to improvise a way to escape. His demise becomes a legend among inmates in the soap opera.
While Akili and Chicki came to my class over five years ago, Kareem was a latecomer who joined the Caribbean history class. He earned a spot on the debate team with his own quirky sense of humour. Originally, the debate team was a class project, but when it was decided we would have inter-station debates, we offered the opportunity for anyone in Port of Spain Prison who wanted to form an opposing team to challenge us.
It took gumption to face the debaters in my class, who had already honed their skills on two, well-attended debates in the media spotlight. The entire prison seemed to be gunning for us. When the judges chose the top five debaters from both teams, Akili survived the cut and Kareem made the cut by injecting humour in the question and answer section.
Now, Akili, Chicki and Kareem are back in the “free world.” I wish them well. I hope they will use all the communication skills they learned in my classes and in the debates. I know they want to be productive citizens. It’s up to someone out there to take a chance on these young men, and give them jobs. If you do, you will experience loyalty and gratitude on a level that you have never imagined possible.