Taking flight at YTC

​Debbie Jacob  -
​Debbie Jacob -

​Debbie Jacob

THIS MONTH marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of Wishing for Wings, and I am still trying to grasp how this book changed my life and brought much-needed attention to juvenile delinquency in this country.

The story of my first CXC English class in the Youth Training Centre (YTC) where I taught teenagers incarcerated for violent armed robbery and murder brought financial support from companies, book clubs and generous citizens from both here and abroad so I could buy books for my English and history classes.

Eight teenagers written off by society bore their souls so we could understand what rehabilitation and redemption mean. The overwhelming financial response led to the Wishing for Wings Foundation.

When a student waiting in YTC remand turned 18 and got sent to Port of Spain Prison, former prison commissioner Sterling Stewart gave me a class to teach there.

I listened to young men in desperate need of skills to fit back in society and ran PVC furniture-making, decorative tiling and barbering classes with grants from the US Embassy and assistance from the Ministry of Community Development.

The first graduating class performed Jah Cure’s song Prison Walls. “I wish that Jah could come and take us back in time. I swear, I can be a better man,” they sang, and I cried. I sent young men out of prison with barbering kits, certificates in barbering and hope for the future.

In some of our nation’s schools that people are tempted to write off, I have read excerpts from Wishing for Wings to 90 students at a time and marvelled at being able to hear a pin drop. The US Embassy grants sponsored class sets of these books.

My beloved prison debates began in my Port of Spain Prison English class and ran for three years before we formed debate teams in all ten of the nation’s prisons. I saw young men who could only express anger and resilient women turn into some of the most articulate people in this country.

They developed invaluable communication skills. TT heard the viewpoints of young men and women they never envisioned coming in contact with.

Under Mr Stewart, we turned darkness into light in Port of Spain Prison, converting old death row cells to a library with a special wing for inmates to read to their children. Inmates tore down those cells; the artists from Carrera prison did the artwork designed by my daughter, Ijanaya. Some of those artists once lived in those death row cells.

During the last 14 years, the TT canine police allowed their Caroni station to be my sanctuary, a getaway from the sad and often depressing work in prison, necessary and uplifting, but difficult to handle emotionally. Alone on the grass outside of the dogs’ kennels, I played with retired police dogs and recharged my dwindling willpower to face another day.

I sourced US Embassy grants to improve the police dogs’ lives. During the pandemic, when all my prison programmes came to a halt, the generous people of this country donated bleach, hand sanitiser, soap and anything necessary to fight covid19 in our prisons. Gary Aboud and the NGO SEWA helped me bring 30,000 masks into prison.

In 2020, the TTPS canine section involved me in its puppy programme in Cumuto. Closed borders meant we couldn’t import police dogs so they raised puppies and trained them to be police dogs.

Every smile, every accomplishment leads back to those teenagers in Wishing for Wings. Their stories are as relevant today as the day I wrote them. Because of those teenagers, I was named Express Individual of the Year in 2019. I received a Chaconia Gold national medal in 2020 for spheres of humanitarian work in prisons and with the TTPS canine section.

I came from two of the most invisible places in this country, our prisons and the canine police compound, and got recognition for all the voiceless people in this country.

In our prisons, I have met loyal, caring and creative people who uplift me. For the last six years one dream that tops my wish list is to build a barber shop in the Remand Prison to run my barbering courses and to give the most destitute men in this country a decent haircut to go to court. My other dream is to bring our police kennels to international standards.

My dreams loom large because of eight young men who made me understand the value of wishing for wings.


"Taking flight at YTC"

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