In the exercise yard at remand prison, at Golden Grove, Arouca, Terrence Morris sat alone thinking about a message just delivered to him.
The Trinidad and Tobago prison programmes officer said the Wishing for Wings Foundation wanted to know how members of the prison debate team felt about writing jingles addressing covid19 in TT.
Morris along with Marlon Lee and Kenyatta King from the Remand Prison debate team; Aaron Charles of the Carrera Prison debate team and Arnold Ramlogan of the Maximum Security Prison (MSP) debate team had all been asked to participate in the project sanctioned by the prison service.
Audio: Listen to audio clip.
Morris, who once worked as a certified crane operator in Point Lisas, thought about the stigma society had of Remand Prison inmates.
“People always say, ‘Nothing good comes out of remand prison’,” says Morris.
Once again, he knew he had the chance to prove everyone wrong.
“When I went outside for exercise and airing in the yard, I sat by myself the whole hour and thought, ‘Ms (Debbie) Jacob (head of the Wishing for Wings Foundation) wants a covid19 jingle. For some reason she chose me. She believes in me. There’s something she knows about me that I don’t see. I can’t sing, so I thought I’d write a poem.’”
Morris says, “I wrote, ‘Corona virus, the world’s worst disease…’ I knew there was nothing else I could say for that first line. I knew my brother living in England was in lockdown so I decided the next line would be, ‘Hide in your homes, people, please.’ I had a cellmate who believed he had contracted covid19. I remembered how he was acting, lying there shaking so I described him in the third line. I probably wrote my poem over about 20 times.”
In prison, there’s no way to social distance so Morris says he sleeps with his mask on. He hopes that people in the “free world” will take wearing masks and social distancing more seriously.
Audio: Listen to audio clip.
“All I wanted is for my voice to be heard,” says Morris. “It’s a message coming from the prison. If you don’t want to hear, you are going to feel. I am 34 and I never saw anything like this. I heard of Ebola and Swine flu, but I believe covid19 is so bad. Every morning I get up and pray. There’s a lot of madness going on. We hope we can help with these ads.”
Meanwhile, other inmates answered the request for covid jingles, which would become a co-production with prisons.
Audio: Listen to audio clip.
Marlon Lee, an ordained Spiritual Baptist minister and calypsonian singing under the sobriquet Bitter Honey, says he believed a covid19 jingle could reach people who were not listening to Government. Lee is the son of calypsonian Sugar Aloes.
“I decided some people are bored with speech, but people might hear my song. While chipping around and dancing, the message would be planted in them.”
Lee has no doubt that musical messages have power.
“Many of our most important messages in TT have come through calypso. Not everyone could be told something in a harsh or stern way. Sometimes people need to feel safe and comfortable to receive a message.”
Lee wrote his jingle to an extempo melody and tried it out on other inmates and officers. "You need that audience, and you need to remember a very humble person is a very exalted person,” he says.
He has spent nearly 13 years in remand prison waiting for his murder trial to being, and Lee says fighting the possibility of the pandemic spreading in prison is frightening. He faces that fear with the strength prison has given him.
“I believe no one can make themselves strong until they find themselves in the weakest place where there is no one to cry to. Only then can you find your creator and yourself.
We have no place to run from covid inside of here so I felt this covid ad is very much important. It shows I am still being heard. Someone is still being interested in what I have to say.”
King tapped into the messages he was getting about people’s behaviour outside of prison to write his jingle.
“I heard about what authorities were trying to get people to do to be safe, but people had rejected it. I wanted to show what is necessary for people to do: wash your hands, wear your mask, social distance. I wanted people to take covid seriously. This is not a joke.”
King feels optimistic that inmates’ covid jingles can reach the general public that have seemed unreachable until now.
"Education is the most important thing right now. If you are just hearing what people are saying who aren’t too educated, that’s dangerous. People need proper knowledge about covid19.”
He says the problem is, “Some people are frightened of knowledge. They need to be better informed because we need the world to keep going.’
King, who is also a calypsonian, teaches primary English and English CXC classes in remand prison.
Audio: Listen to audio clip.
“I never thought I could be a teacher. People have a concept that everyone is prison is bad. People want to punish instead of forgive, and there are a lot of people who need forgiveness and need a chance in life,” says King, who once worked as a certified tailor. He has spent 13 years waiting for his murder trial.
In Carrera Prison, the prison’s debate captain, Aaron Charles, who also works in the prison library and is the Zoom visit orderly, wrote his covid ad hoping to reach people who aren’t taking covid19 seriously.
“I am frightened of covid,” says Charles. “We have to control it because anything in prison spreads like wildfire. Some people insist they must party so I think music is a good way to send a message to them,” said Charles.
“Many of us have come so far and done so much to turn around our lives and we hope to make it out of here without suffering from covid,” he says.
The former auto mechanic has served 15 years of an 18 year sentence.
“There are 1,440 minutes in each day, so we have 1,440 minutes to do something positive,” says Morris, who has waited over 10 years for his trial. “Time is something you can’t get back. It’s important not to waste it.”
“Remand is a university,” says King. “You must learn something here.”
“Remand prison is Trinidad,” says Morris. “In here, there is someone from each part of the country.”
For many, remand prison seems like a bitter end, but Bitter Honey says, “When the phoenix gets old, it blazes a fire, but out of the ashes, comes new life.”
“From the minute you are convicted, they say you lose your pride,” says King. “I don’t think that’s true. Life is the most important thing, and we have life. We can do good.”
Every day, Morris thinks, “I have the chance to prove society wrong. I am an individual and someone in remand prison. Our voices count,” says Morris.
They believe the prison debate teams and the covid public service ads they have recorded through Rise Maximum Radio in MSP give them a voice.
“Everything we do is noticed,” says King. “I want to do a jingle on the importance of taking the vaccination.”
“I was incarcerated, then I was disgraced of myself because a man's feelings is most of the time based on public opinion, and when you become a criminal, you lose the privilege of being self-righteous,” says Morris.
“Being involved in the first inter-station and all-star debate team gave me the opportunity to prove myself as well as people in society wrong.”
And now he says his voice as a debater is heard through his covid ad.
Each ad is introduced by Ramlogan, who works at Rise Maximum Radio, located in Maximum Security Prison. The prison radio station travelled to remand and Carrera prisons during the pandemic to record these ads, which will hopefully be part of a public awareness drive by the Ministry of Health. They are available for any radio station to run, and can be heard on on the online verison of this story.
The trio from remand prison have collectively waited over 35 years for their trials. Covid19 has added to their court delays, but even if they could leave remand prison tomorrow, all three plan to continue working with inmates in remand prison. King wants to keep teaching. Lee says, “Being here has humbled me and taught me to be a true minister of God. This is my ministry. I want to continue the work I started here. I find joy from my mission.” Morris wants to mentor young inmates and inspire them to take positive roads in life.
For now, covid19 is uppermost on their minds. ‘We worry about society out there,’ says Morris.
“I want to write a jingle telling everyone to get the vaccination," says King.
"The covid19 pandemic is the common enemy to lives and livelihoods. These ads are the inmates’ way of saying we stand together against this covid enemy,” said acting Commissioner of Prisons Shamshudeen Mohammed.
In the end, their covid19 jingles give these inmates the power to feel that they can help to protect society.