IN PRISON, you learn to expect the unexpected. I know this, and still, I find myself shocked and surprised, depressed and uplifted on any given day I step foot in prison. I couldn’t help thinking of this last Tuesday just before I entered the tech/voc building in Golden Grove Prison for the first debate of our second annual prison inter-station debates. The din drifting from the Golden Grove Remand Prison, a separate prison across the road, made me pause for a moment.
Inmates mingling outside for “airing” were too far away for me to discern any faces, but my spirit plummeted when I thought about a relatively new arrival, a young man with a pile of CXC passes, four of which he got from my classes. But then I thought about my scrappy Remand debate team somewhere inside of there. They won everyone’s hearts last year with their enviable charisma and dogged determination. Terrence Morris, David Khan and eventually Jaylon Roberts made the top ten cut and became part of Team Intellect, the first prison all-star team.
With the support of many inmates in the Remand Yard, they honed their debating skills in the prison everyone likes to write off as “nothing good ever comes out of there.” After the Bocas Lit Festival’s inmates vs officers debate, which was part of City Week, the debating trio from GG Remand returned to their prison to form a new team.
But their prison programme director, Avalon Ramsahai, who was in charge of their steady rise to second place in the first debate competition, is now stationed at Golden Grove Prison. Ramsahai could not possibly work magic in another prison I thought when I finally stepped inside the tech/voc building.
I wasn’t being cynical. At the preliminary workshop last month, Golden Grove’s debate team looked lost and stunned – like deer caught in the headlights. They appeared to be the weakest team for the upcoming debates, and they had no returning debaters from last year.
“Don’t worry,” said Ramsahai, “don’t you know you’re dealing with me?”
On this day Golden Grove would face a formidable foe, Carrera Convict Prison led by Aaron Charles, a mesmerising debater with a golden voice that he modulates for maximum effect. Aaron enhances his arguments – visually structured to capture the judges’ attention – with impeccable diction. Last year, Aaron climbed to a spot among the top ten debaters and made the all-star team, which consisted of debaters from four separate prisons: Carrera, the Eastern Correction and Rehabilitation Centre, Golden Grove Remand and Maximum Security Prison.
Aaron had been pulled into the debates through his friend and fellow Carrera debater Philbert Foster, who had turned out to be the number one debater in the entire prison system. A former street child who had nothing but a primary school education before he landed in prison, Foster beat back all those Maximum Security Prison debaters, who like to flaunt their pile of CXC and CAPE passes every chance they get.
Golden Grove Remand’s Supt Noel Phillip had recognised Aaron’s potential as a debater. Once scrappy and confrontational, Aaron always had “chat” for officers doing the rounds in prison. One day, Philip said to him, “You always have something to say, why don’t you join the debate team?” The rest is history.
Surprisingly, Hassan Hossein has returned as Carrera’s question asker. He has had his challenges with some people in his faith who felt debates were not dignified behaviour for religious people.
Both teams filed into the hall. Dressed in long, black pants and white shirts, they settled behind their tables covered with red tablecloths. Both teams scanned the judges and the audience. Kevin “Voices” Elias reluctantly met my gaze when he passed. Voices had written and sung some songs for the radio soap opera my class wrote in Port of Spain Prison. Now he was in Golden Grove.
“I’m trying,” he whispered to me on the way to his table.
I nodded. “But you have to admit some things.”
“I know,” he said.
Ramsahai nodded when I looked his way because he knew exactly what I was thinking: his new Golden Grove team had embodied the demeanour of his previous Remand team. Golden Grove, the team that bowed out in the first round last year, the team that looked hopelessly lost in the preliminary workshop was about to take the stage.
Next week: Shock and awe: The surprising results of the Golden Grove/Carrera debate