Jamaica, December 2001
Desmond Green was waiting with a driver at Kingston’s Manley airport. Nesson’s fascination with Green made immediate sense to me. He wore huarache sandals, a pressed short-sleeve button-down tucked into dark slacks, and large, Mao-style eyeglasses. An elegant silver goatee, no wider than a finger, ran from his lower lip to the end of his chin. Wiry and soft-spoken, Green’s presence did not command attention so much as entice it. His low, pause-laden speech forced you to listen closely until he finished each deliberate phrase – indeed, a little like Nesson. Green had the air of a clergyman (or, yes, a yogi). He tended to speak in fortune cookies, equal parts prosing wisdom and inscrutable abstraction.
I’d flown in on the same flight Professor Ogletree, whom Green embraced when we emerged from the terminal. “As you flex and relax,” Green said, gesturing to the velvety mountains in the near background, “I want you to begin to think of this as Harvard’s first nation-campus.”
On the ride into Kingston, dance hall reggae pumped from the van’s radio, and Green and Ogletree discussed the relative merits of punishment and rehabilitation. Locking up the violent products of a violent society, said Green, is “a cop-out, and a short sighted cop-out at that.” Ogletree agreed, stressing the importance of second chances; he was eager to learn more about Green’s philosophy of rehabilitation. The bay to our left, we soon entered the city’s outskirts, passing a small shanty town, a natural springs pool [name], an old cement factory, and, eventually, Tower Street Prison, our destination the next morning. A brick wall a few hundred yards long and thirty feet high ran along the road. Atop the wall snaked large loops of concertina wire. Dozens of yellowing socks, t-shirts, and undershorts hung from the coils like fugitive laundry.
Built some 150 years ago, Tower Street was designed to hold five- to six-hundred inmates, Green said. He estimated that it now held between fifteen hundred to two thousand, with almost no modifications to the physical plant. I asked Green how many of the inmates participated in Reverence for Life, or in the rehabilitation program. Membership is open, he said, holding his palms up. “Anyone can log on.”
Ogletree asked Green if we would see Tower Street in its everyday state, or some sanitized, visitor-friendly version. Green nodded, getting Ogletree’s drift. “You catch a fish, it comes with the guts,” he said softly.
* * *
That night the “Harvard team” met in the lobby of the Courtleigh Hotel, in Kingston’s business district. We boarded buses bound for the Alhambra Inn, a restaurant in Beverly Hills, an upscale neighborhood in the Kingston foothills. There we met the “Jamaica team,” officials from various branches of the national government. We mingled, exchanged handshakes and titles, and took our seats on the restaurant’s covered patio. Camella Rhone welcomed both groups, and a long round of introductions followed over dinner. Colonel John Prescod, the outgoing Commissioner of Jamaica’s Correctional Services, addressed the crowd. A short, stately man with a full beard and a laurel of gray hair, he said he held great hope that our visit the following morning would bear fruit. It was crucial “not just [for] Jamaica, not just the Caribbean, but for the world to get this information, use this information, and get something that will challenge or change the premise of correctional systems.”
Prescod’s eight-year tenure had been rocky at times, the main obstacle having been strained relations with Jamaica’s warders, or prison guards. The roots of the rivalry are hard to track. Corrections officials say the guards came to resent Prescod’s efforts at reform -- a theory that Jamaican press archives from Prescod’s era neither refute nor confirm. It is clear, though, that things hit a low in 1997, when Prescod, concerned about the spread of HIV/AIDS in the prison population, proposed that condoms be made available to prisoners and guards. (According to the Jamaican Observer, Jamaica’s prisons’ HIV/AIDS rate is 12 percent, eight times higher than the general population’s.) Guards from Tower Street and another maximum-security prison, reportedly insulted by the implication that they were having gay sex with inmates, walked off the job. In their absence, massive riots ensued, and fourteen to eighteen inmates were killed by fellow prisoners for their alleged homosexuality. The death count depends on the source.
In January 2000, in protest of Prescod’s re-appointment as commissioner, some 600 warders reported in sick across the island. Around the same time, an official from the University & Allied Workers Union (UAWU), which represents most guards, wrote to Jamaica’s minister of national security: “We have no intention of trying to dictate to you who you should or should not appoint as Commissioner; however, we deem it our obligation to unmistakenly bring to your attention our lack of confidence in John Prescod’s leadership.” By May 2000, only 54 warders, aided by 40 reinforcements from the military, held down Tower Street. Prescod responded by placing the striking warders on “interdiction” -- forced leave at quarter pay. Hearings on the legality of the warders’ walkout soon followed. The dispute was not yet resolved at the time of our visit, and no mention of the subject was made in the speeches that night.
* * *
Early the next morning, I joined others from our team who’d planned to get a head start on the day. The documentarians wanted to get some B-roll footage of the city and the prison’s exterior before heading in. Nesson and Green were busy with a local news crew there to set up interviews. Steve Martin, the veteran prison guard, administrator, and policymaker, wanted as much time as he could inside the walls.
On the way to Tower Street, the driver stopped to let the filmmakers shoot a quiet street in a neighborhood of corrugated tin shacks. In the van, I talked to Martin, who like me had traveled from Austin, about folks we might know in common back home.
We pulled into a gravel lot across the street from the prison’s fortified front gate, battlements topping its two massive turrets. A stray dog cocked its head as we rolled to a stop. I followed the other passengers through a gate in the brick wall enclosing the lot, onto the small concrete patio of a two-story house. A short man dressed in street clothes welcomed us to the Howard Pre-Release Hostel. He led the cameramen inside. Steve Martin went to take a look around the place. I snapped a few pictures and soon found myself talking to another outgoing man, tall and thin, in a mesh shirt and jeans. We stood between two bare laundry lines.
“Lawrence.” He introduced himself. “Conroy Lawrence. I am a resident here, a resident of the Pre-Release Hostel.”
“You live here?”
“Yes. I have been here since August.” He smiled, friendly and at ease.
“Where were you before then?”
“In prison. Two years in Saint Mary’s. Around six months at Spanish Town.”
“How does this compare?”
“No comparison.” Spanish Town, a maximum-security facility, was over- crowded, he said. The 1400-some inmates were packed five or six into cells built for two. Many slept on the floor; some put up multi-tiered hammocks. Fights broke out regularly.
Saint Mary’s had not been so tough, he said. It was about the right size for its three hundred inhabitants, most of them less serious offenders than the Spanish Towners. Still, it was nothing like the Pre-Release Hostel. Lawrence shares the house with nine to eleven other “residents,” he said, who divvy up maintenance duties. At eight a.m. every day but Thursdays, he works at a car wash in “a good neighborhood” in Kingston. His daily curfew is 7p.m. I asked him if anybody forced him to return to the hostel then, or if his supervisors monitored him at work to make sure he didn’t escape. No, he said, there was no reason for that. They knew he would not run away. He had gotten the transfer to the Hostel for good behavior, at the prison superintendent’s recommendation. And besides, he was almost out for good: He had served almost thirty-three months of his three-year sentence. March 9, 2002, he was free.
In jail, Lawrence had been “a senior orderly,” he said. He had worn a red tag on his chest to distinguish himself from other prisoners. His duties included cooking for the staff, issuing essentials like soap to the prisoners, taking roll each morning, and breaking up fights. Martin’s ears seemed to perk. He asked about the fighting, and Lawrence repeated much of what he’d said about life at St. Mary’s.
“What was a typical reason for a fight to break out?”
“You know, too crowded,” Lawrence said. His Jamaican accent rivaled Martin’s Texan twang. “One man is taking a shower, and there is another man who says, ‘You have been too long in that shower.’ And the first man, he stays in the shower, stays even longer. Him dead. Dead, dead.”
What did Lawrence know about Tower Street? He sighed, lifted his eyebrows. “It’s very rough. Very, very rough.” Worse than St. Mary’s? “Oh, yes.”
Martin nodded, then returned to inspecting the place. Lawrence asked if I’d like to see his chicken coop.
He ran back out the gate and into the gravel lot. He turned back and waved me on, and I followed him. He walked along the brick wall to another gate. He crawled through the space between two of its support beams. I stood looking at his tennis shoes in the dead grass on the other side of the wall.
“You know, Lawrence, we . . . probably don’t have time to see the chicken coop. I’ve got -- ”
“-- Come on, man. It’s okay.” He laughed. “It’s okay. You are safe, man. Come on.” His smiling face appeared, upside down, in the gate’s open space.
I crawled through, into a small, litter-strewn yard. A run-down coop ran the width of it along one side. Lawrence seemed excited. He walked quickly toward the coop, which was tall enough to enter without stooping, and waved me inside.
“I have one hundred chicks,” he said. He pressed his face up against a chicken wire cage at one end of the coop. The chicks froze, puzzled, the color of old tennis balls. Lawrence cursed and reached in to clean up water that had spilled from a bowl on the cage floor. The chicks began hopping and chirping as if in a film played at double speed. He would sell them to a butcher when the time came.
Outside, Steve Martin was restless. He itched to get in the prison. The camera crew was interviewing other residents, and the hostel personnel hadn’t had time to get away to take Martin in. He suggested we talk to the women and children lining up outside the prison gate. “Visiting time,” he said.
As we crossed the street, the women looked away and the kids stared. Martin introduced himself to one woman, who looked up reluctantly, and asked her if she was there to visit an inmate.
“My son,” she said.
“How often do you get to visit?”
“Two times a week.” I pulled out my pen and notepad, and soon a dozen women surrounded us. They were teenaged to elderly, agitated and eager to talk.
“How much time do you get each visit?” Martin continued.
“Three minutes maybe.”
“Most times two minutes,” another woman interjected.
“One and a half!” said an angry young girl holding the hand of a young boy in a Dream Team t-shirt a size too big. “Then the warder takes him away. Waiting here two hours!”
We asked if they could bring the inmates gifts.
“Food only. No clothing. No money,” said the first woman.
“Three sweet biscuits.”
“One tin of milk.”
“Fruit. A box of oatmeal. Brown sugar. Syrup.”
Martin asked how they communicated with the prisoners. Did they sit at a table with them? Did they use a telephone?
“No table. Just a window.”
“The telephone broke!”
“Two minutes and the warder says get out!”
Martin asked the first woman how she felt about her son’s safety inside Tower Street. She stared at him for a moment, placed a hand on a hip, and said, “I don’t feel good.”
Another woman, overcome with excitement, said that there had been a fight inside that morning. Two inmates had been stabbed. An ambulance had come and carted them off to the hospital, just minutes before we arrived, another woman said. Such incidents occur “all the while,” said an older woman.
“What does that mean?” Martin asked.
“All the while, man!”
“Once a week?”
“Once a month?”
Buses carrying the rest of the Harvard team rolled up. Martin seemed disappointed. The team poured off the buses and into the street, some loaded with gear, others empty-handed. I noticed one of Nesson’s evidence students, an attractive young woman, wearing a tight T-shirt with an open midriff, a cut-off camouflage skirt, and sandals. A few minutes later I saw her get off the bus a second time, wearing a t-shirt over the outfit. It covered the skirt, reaching just past her knees.
People fiddled with their film and batteries and wondered aloud what exactly the day’s program had in store. A prison official began leading people in four at a time. A soldier with a machine gun guarded a large steel door next to the main gate. Several more were standing in the cramped concrete vestibule inside. A message was scrawled in white chalk or paint on inside the metal gates, just above eye-level: “What is going on in G.P., why are the warders dying so sudden! Stress? May God help us all.”
Signs over doors opening into the hall read “Keyroom,” “Ablution Area.” We filed up to a desk where an official gave us visitors’ passes. . The extent of our briefing was that cell phones had to be turned in. We were not frisked. On the wall behind the desk was a list of items visitors could bring inmates. Almost to the letter, it matched what the women outside had said
Guards led us down a hall, sunlight pouring in through the grills sealing its opening into the prison. We passed more soldiers with machine guns, then walked into the open air. A two-story cellblock, extending about a hundred yards to the left and right, now separated us from the main yard. From almost every available structure – doorways, windows, railings -- laundry was set to dry. Scores of inmates draped the bars, ambled along the walkways, smoked cigarettes. A handful of prisoners lounged along the second story balcony. They applauded our entrance, whistled.
We passed under the balcony into a breezeway and walked out into the vast yard. Grass and weeds grew piebald in the dirt. Long chain link fences separated several cellblocks spaced out evenly within the walls. Clusters of men of all ages, some reed-thin, some built like athletes. Shaved heads and dreadlocks, baseball hats and colorful tams. Young, clean faces and worn, wrinkled mugs. A few gold chains; a few graying beards limp in the breeze. Chatter and the sweet stink of ganja in the air. Prisoners strode in that oddly resolute way, toward unseen destinations. It was like visiting an open-air bazaar patronized by men with nothing to buy and nothing to sell.
Unarmed warders in blue uniforms led us towards the chapel at the yard’s center. Electric guitars in mid-tune bayed from inside. A dozen blue and beige uniforms stood at its entrance. Prisoners stared as we made our way toward it, but fewer than I would have guessed. No one approached us. I felt more at ease than I had expected, though a little self-conscious -- a baldhead with a bulky camera anchoring the pocket of a guayabera. Still, a lingering worry asked what stood between this harmless disorder and all-out chaos. Prisoners seemed to outnumber uniformed warders by around ten to one. Once through the entrance, I did not see any armed guards.
“It’s wild, how everyone just walks around freely like this,” I said to Nesson, who walked a pace ahead of me.
“They’re all inside the wall,” he said, smiling.
* * *
The day that followed, inside the chapel, was more about celebration than fact-finding, though it was never clear what was being celebrated. First, there was music. The band’s instrumental overtures set the tone; later, inmates took turns singing and dancing, solo and in groups. Some performers sported matching outfits: a group from another prison wore blue satiny shirts with white vests and pants; a women’s group, also at Tower Street for the day, wore white gowns with pink and light blue stripes with small matching hats. A band called the Noble and Divine Rasses sang a trancelike chain-gang number in bright turbans and leg and arm shackles made of tin foil. They vied with a man who sang a song called Runnin’ from Bablyon for the unofficial crowd favorite that morning.
Then there were speeches, but these, too, were more show than tell. Most speakers seemed to assume foreknowledge by the audience; the basic elements, goals, and methods of Reverence for Life and the rehabilitation program were not explained. Earl Fearon, deputy commissioner of custodial services and Prescod’s successor as commissioner, declared it “a red-letter day” and praised Reverence for Life. He thanked the Harvard team and made a glowing introduction of Professors Ogletree and Nesson, whom the drummer welcomed with a rim shot and a fill. The inmates led a standing ovation.
Ogletree described his experience in criminal justice administration, stressing his recent international research and advocacy projects in the field. “You are a model for the rest of the world,” he told the crowd, to loud applause, before making an oblique reference to an escape that had occurred earlier in the week at Tower Street. “After the one dark cloud,” Ogletree said, gesturing to the windows, “the sun is shining today.”
I would only fill in the blanks of the story later, from news reports and conversations with prisoners: That Tuesday a 37-year-old Michael Brown, alias Alfred Mitchell, escaped while on work release. Brown, sentenced to life for murder, was doing some plumbing work on a home in Kingston. National Security Minister Peter Phillips ordered a review of the rehabilitation program in the wake of the escape, according to the local papers.
Prescod’s speech, though rather solemn in contrast to the general mood, did little more to illuminate what the party was about. “What we are pondering is not something to have fun with. It is serious.” He paused, took a breath.
“We have a saying in Jamaica: When the chicken merry . . . ”
In unison, the crowd -- inmates and government officials alike – finished the sentence:
“. . . the hawk is near!”
Prescod did not specify who was the hawk to rehabilitation’s chicken, or if he merely meant that the prison reformers should not rest easy. But he seemed to allude to his ongoing row with the warders: “There is a great problem with the premise upon which penal systems are established . . . . When you try to change that thinking you will obviously have conflicts.”
Prescod addressed the escape earlier that week. “We have a new minister of security, a new man in a new post,” he said, referring to Phillips. “It’s hard to understand the Reverence for Life,” he said. Nevertheless, he had sat down with Phillips and apparently set things straight. “I can tell you that your new minister believes in rehabilitation.” Applause.
Riding the momentum, Prescod chided the escapee, Brown. “That person disappoints himself,” he said. “I bet he is more miserable than anyone in this room.” More applause. “There’s nobody of the two to three hundred inmates involved who in my belief is of any threat to society. I can expose my families to any one of them at any time.” The inmates led another standing ovation.
Prescod certainly seemed to have one Tower Street constituency on his side, but like the Reverence for Life program, the size and nature of its membership remained hazy. Earlier that month, when Prescod had announced his resignation, The Jamaican Observer ran a letter to the editor entitled “We want Prescod”:
We the inmates of the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre wish to state that we wholeheartedly seek to encourage Lt Col Prescod to rethink his decision, and remain as our commissioner of correctional service, by renewing his contract at its expiry, this year-end.
We verily believe that Col Prescod has done a tremendous job towards the safe keep, rehabilitation and the eradication of re-civilising of inmates islandwide. It is our considered opinion that the departure of Lt Col John Prescod will serve a devastating blow and ultimately retard the enhancement of the rehabilitation within the department of corrections, which has been significantly improved since his watch.
The letter was signed, simply, “Inmates, Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre.”
* * *
I had gotten restless well before Prescod took the podium. Between songs and speeches, I moved to different parts of the chapel to talk with inmates. Bruce “Lee” Cover, one of the men in the blue-and-white band uniform, was happy to talk. His singing group, the True Believers, consisted of inmates from South Camp, the prison our team would visit the next morning. I asked him how South Camp compared to Tower Street. “Nothing like this,” he said, bright-eyed and smiling. Tower Street was “very rough.” It was “waiting to explode.”
Gersham Anthony Bailey, the group’s leader, spoke with a slight lisp and, like Cover, smiled constantly as he spoke. He had visited Tower Street several times and echoed Cover’s assessment of it.
“Is it scary, visiting Tower Street?” I asked him.
“Not scary, really. But I don’t like the environment.”
“Have you seen fights here?”
“Oh yes. Big fights. Very big fights. Wars. There are not very serious fights at South Camp.”
“Do you ever worry about a big fight starting while we’re all in here?”
He nodded. “But with God, anything is possible.”
Later I spoke with some of the inmates looking in through the tropical blinds near the stage. It was a pocket of quiet, just outside the loudspeakers’ line of fire. Most of the men had little to say. A few asked for money. One very thin in man, a blue Bible in his hand, was anxious and talkative. I asked him what he thought about the morning’s events and about Reverence for Life. He said he admired Reverence for Life and believed in rehabilitation. I asked him why he was not inside the chapel.
“I can’t,” he said.
“Because I am one of the prisoners who is accused of being homosexual.”
Was he not allowed? By whom? Prison officials, or other inmates? Or, post-1997, did he simply not dare? He launched into a long speech by the time I’d thought to ask.
His story about the ’97 riots matched the newspapers’ versions, for the most part. But he added that he thought warders had incited prisoners to act -- specifically to make Prescod look bad. Since the incident, those prisoners thought to be homosexual had been separated from the rest of the inmates. They slept and lived in the cellblock just behind the chapel’s back wall, in an area called the Special Location Unit.
Around then, Nesson came to tell me that our hosts wanted me to sit down. A Jamaican official whom I’d met at dinner the night before waved and pointed to an open seat. “They say you’re being an attractive nuisance, apparently,” Nesson said. “Attractive nuisance” is a Torts term; it’s one of the few bits of legalese that means what it sounds like. Only a few more prisoners had approached the window since I had started poking around, but I obliged anyway. Before I turned away, the man with the Bible said, “It is brewing, it is building -- like what happened in ‘97.”
* * *
At lunch, Steve Martin was unsettled. The team had been escorted back out of Tower Street to the Department of Corrections’ Sports Club down the street, where Commissioner Prescod and the other Jamaican officials sat down with us. Martin had broken off from the group early into the morning’s talent show, having asked a guard to escort him around the prison grounds. He straggled in to lunch with a worried look and a few stories.
His impression was that Tower Street was “out of control,” he said, “at the mercy of the prisoners.” Several inmates had told him that about twice the usual number of warders were present for our visit. Even more worrisome, he said, were the conditions of the infirmary and the George Davis Mental Health Center, a compound separate from the main yard where mentally ill inmates were kept. It was “chilling,” he said, “abhorrent.” He suggested I see it for myself.
Back inside Tower Street, I didn’t join the team inside the chapel, but I didn’t take up Martin’s recommendation just yet, either. During our break, more inmates had gathered at the mouth of the chapel. They now stood two rows deep at the windows. One taller man peering over the crowd held a cell phone to his ear. Smelling ganja, I asked one man in an nWo-brand t-shirt about the drug policy in Tower Street. He said marijuana was illegal but very easy to find.
Most of the inmates I spoke to seemed to think I was there to field complaints or recommendations. Two men bemoaned the frequent lack of food and its poor quality. The warders steal it, one said. “We need soldiers,” said the other, gesturing toward the front gate, where the guys with machine guns had been, “to guard the food.” One man asked me to order the prison a new basketball goal. “The one we have is falling down.”
Many approached me only to tell me how long they’d been inside and to make sure I’d spelled their names correctly. A man with several long scars on his face asked me to send him a walkman, sneakers, and blue jeans -- thirty-six waist, forty-two inseam, he said. One young man introduced me to an aging inmate with a salt-and-pepper beard and dreadlocks, Frank Thompson. Mr. Thompson had been in twenty-nine years. He had no teeth.
Out of nowhere, a pudgy inmate buttonholed me. “Do you realize that while you were eating, no lunch was provided to many of these hard-working corrections officers?” I asked him what he was talking about. “The prison officers,” he said, “many of them were denied lunch today, even though they are working overtime.” I asked him if this were true why he, an inmate, would care? He said that it showed “the contempt with which the commissioner treats these officers.”
The man with the blue bible appeared again, holding out a homemade envelope with a hand-made drawing on one side and speaking under his breath. The drawing showed a man and a woman embracing inside a heart-shaped outline. It said, “I Love You” in large, stylized letters. I asked him to speak up: Did he want me to buy the envelope? Only a little more loudly, he asked me to slip one hundred dollars inside it, but to be careful, so that the warders wouldn’t see. I handed him back the empty envelope.
I found a guard who agreed to show me the grounds. He took me to the Tower Street Tailor Shop, a room behind chapel where inmates could repair torn clothes. The shop was unoccupied; a dozen or so dusty sewing machines half-filled the space. A small plaque near the shop’s front door said the structure was made possible by something called Food for the Poor.
I asked the guard to take me to the infirmary. From the outside, it looked like another cellblock. Four men in street clothes sat playing dominoes on its stoop. One was an inmate-orderly; another, a Department of Corrections official, gave me a tour. First stop was the dormitory, a long room upstairs where overnight patients stayed. Bed frames, about half of them with mattresses and sheets, were spaced along both sides of the room, like soldiers’ barracks. Half a dozen patients lay awake, talking. The room was poorly lit, the floors foul. The sheet metal roof was riddled with holes the size of quarters; at the far end of the room, a few had grown to grapefruit-size.
A man in one of the beds aimed a syringe at his upper leg. “He’s diabetic,” the worker said as we entered a dank, dark bathroom, the bathtub filled with laundry. The health worker said they had no running water until sundown each day. Back in the dormitory, the man with the syringe had gotten up and kneeled beside his cot. A long tongue of flame flickered up past his head. Closer up, I could see he held a long paper towel or rag that he had twisted up into a spiral. He traced its burning end along the wall, up and down, chasing the smoke and mumbling.
Downstairs, I toured the examination rooms, which were only a little cleaner (to the extent a bachelor’s eye can assess degrees of filth). The examination chairs lacked pads on the back and head, and their metal frames had rusted. The health worker showed me a table where trauma cases are often examined. It had no mattress; patients would lie across a few two-by-fours that spanned the frame. Often the health workers would cover it with a plastic tarp to help to contain the bleeding, he said, but they had run out of tarps in recent weeks.
There was no sterilizer of any sort. No autoclave. Instruments were cleaned with bleach or alcohol. No ventilator. No oxygen. No IV equipment. A brand new refrigerator, almost too large to be opened in the small room it occupied, sat unused. There was not enough steady electricity to operate it. There was no ice, and those patients who had medicine stored it in a small medicine cabinet in a shady part of the examination room. I asked him who supplied the equipment and medicine he did have. “An NGO. Food for the Poor,” he said.
The examining physician was not in that day. He was scheduled to come twice a week, said the health worker, but usually showed up only once. The prison psychiatrist was in, though, if I could wait a few minutes. The health worker went back to his domino game.
Meanwhile, the guard took me outside to see some of the mentally ill inmates. Adjacent to the infirmary, the grates of a strip of cells faced out in the direction of the bay. Each was about seven to eight feet wide and five or six feet across, I guessed. In the first cell I passed, I man knelt on the floor – concrete, or dirt? -- facing the filthy back wall. He was barefoot and shirtless. The next cell’s grate was covered by a sheet. A hand-painted sign over the cell read “A Dangerous Man.” I saw bare toes poke from under the cloth, and the top of a man’s head above it. Then eyes peered over the top seam -- large, blazing globes staring through mine, unblinking. The guard said he’d killed two inmates by biting their necks and drinking their blood. I looked away, then looked back, and the eyes were still on me. I looked down and moved on.
The next few cells were the same size, but each was occupied by four or five men sitting nearly shoulder-to-shoulder on the foul ground. Most simply stared through the gate, eyes glazed. Some mumbled. Others shouted -- whether curses, blessings, or requests, it was all unintelligible.
Most of these men were spillover patients from the George Davis Center, the prison psychiatrist, George Leveridge, explained later. The rest were “on remand,” meaning that they had been declared unfit to stand trial. They would be incarcerated until it could be determined whether they could enter a plea knowingly and willingly. Leveridge acknowledged the odd logic of this policy, but said that it was a lack of basic resources, not logic, that dictated it. “Even if they are declared mentally ill,” he said, “the hospitals won’t take them, because as inmates, they need solider supervision outside the prison.” How long would most of these “remand” inmates remain in jail? “Basically indefinitely,” said Leveridge. One “mentally challenged” man, septuagenarian Ivan Barrows, spent nearly 29 years in prison without a trial. Barrows’ ordeal brought public attention to the “remand” problem; in March 2001, the Gleaner reported that some 150 people unfit to stand trial were incarcerated on the island – this down from a high of 300. At the time of our visit, the Tower Street prison ledger listed 96 such “inmates.” They are locked down from 3:30pm to 7am every day.
Leveridge said he visits every corrections center on the island twice a week. His support staff at Tower Street consists of seven or eight orderly-inmates whom he described as “very reliable and very helpful.” Candidates are screened by the superintendent’s office, then interviewed by the hospital workers and doctors, who in turn make a recommendation back to the administration.
Despite the help, said Leveridge, “the hospital is a mess.” He referred to the lack of water, refrigeration, basic tools. I asked him if there were one piece of equipment or service that would make his job easier or the hospital more successful, what would it be?
“You’re from the States?” he said.
“Well I don’t know what you think about it there, but I’ve always thought there’s a place for electroconvulsive therapy. So perhaps . . . an ECT machine. It would definitely help. Of course you’ve seen the pharmacy,” he said, gesturing to the tiny, half-full medicine cabinet in the other room.
“Where does the equipment and medicine that you do have come from?” I asked. “Government?”
“Most of the psychiatric medication comes from NGOs. Food for the Poor, for example.”
“Basically, Food for the Poor. I believe they’re Florida-based.”
“Do you know if Reverence for Life and the rehabilitation program are open to all inmates?”
“There may be one or two who say they feel they are excluded,” but the exclusion is not systematic, as far as he knew.
“What about homosexuals?”
“You have to understand that this society is extremely homophobic.” He summarized the ’97 riots.
“Do Reverence for Life members get better medical care?”
“I’m not sure not sure. Maybe. They do seem to have better access to medicine.”
“How is that?”
“Visitors bring it for them.”
* * *
Back at the chapel, I found Desmond Green. The musicians were taking five, and the crowd mingled. I asked Green where the money for the bandroom, the instruments, the PA system, and the computer came from.
“Food for the Poor.”
“What is Food for the Poor?”
An NGO, he said, independent from Reverence for Life and the Jamaican government.
“How did you convince them to give you money for computers, musical instruments . . . ?”
“They know that culture is very important. You have to ask how this government, with all this talent” – he gestured around the room – “doesn’t make better use of the talent. Because culture is money, if packaged and distributed.”
“Does Food for the Poor give Reverence for Life cash?”
“They donate these goods in kind?”
“They deliver amplifiers and guitars to the prison?”
“I think so.”
“Do you ask for them, any special requests?”
“Does the Department of Corrections pay your salary?”
I asked Green how he’d gotten involved with the Department of Corrections, how he’d brought Reverence for Life, which apparently existed independent of the rehabilitation program, into the prisons. He said he’d heard Prescod on a radio talk show and called in. Prescod was interested in what Green had to say about rehabilitation, and the rest fell into place.
I asked Green how he might justify having the bandroom equipped as it was when the infirmary had no running water until sundown, when the two toilets in the mental health spillover cellblock didn’t work, when the “remand” inmates are four or five to a small cell. But the music was about to start up again. Green had to return to his seat. We faded apart from each other, and he held his palms out. “Different ballgame,” he said, before turning away.
* * *
Fast-forward two weeks. I speak to Angel Aloma, a Food for the Poor representative at their Florida headquarters, on the phone from Austin. I asked him how the NGO’s procurement program generally works.
“We ask in the prison what the needs are,” said Aloma. They meet or speak with prison authorities, who present a “wish list.” Food for the Poor then does what they can “with what [they’re] able to get. . . . Most of the goods we get are donated or bought at extremely low prices. Certain things we won’t supply. We wouldn’t supply equipment for an abortion clinic. We don’t support anything that goes against our Christian values.”
I asked Aloma if Food for the Poor ever supplied the prisons medicine. Yes, he said, “unless that is something that is fulfilled by the government there. We try to stay out of the politics there. If the government is responsible for supplying, say, the medicines, then we don’t get involved.”
I asked him if he knew if Food for the Poor supplied Jamaican prisons with musical equipment and public address systems, and if so, if he had an opinion on the policy.
“The musical situation is really because the prisoners are so dehumanized that sending something like that helps them to feel like human beings again.”
* * *
Rewind back to Tower Street. Steve Martin and I found a guard who would take us to see the prison’s records office. It was on the backside of the second floor of the cellblock we passed under on the way inside the prison that morning. Inside, prison officials showed us the chalkboard that served as the prison register: It listed 4 escapees, 3 youths, 750 “stars” (first offenders), 344 “ordinaries” (repeat offenders), 96 “awaiting trial,” and 266 “appellants.” One inmate was listed as hospitalized; the morning’s two stab victims had not yet been tallied. And one inmate was listed as dead; he would be counted as an inmate until the body was removed from the prison morgue.
A separate filed indicated that there had been nine unnatural deaths at Tower Street since January 1, 2001:
1) suicide (hanging)
2) stab wound to the neck
3) blunt external force; hemorrhaging
4) multiple stab wounds
5) multiple stab wounds
6) multiple stab wounds
7) cerebrovascular accident; pneumonia
8) stab wounds
9) asphyxiation by hanging.
* * *
As we returned to the chapel from the office, Steve Martin pointed out a heavyset prisoner in a green, striped collared shirt, walking our way. “Now, you’ve got to talk to this guy.” Martin pointed.
“No, no,” the man said, backpedaling and grinning broadly. “Please, please . . . I have nothing to say.” He looked over his shoulder and hurried away.
Back at the chapel, I asked a guard to take me inside the George Davis Mental Health Center. Steve Martin said he’d come along for a second look. We walked along a fence parallel to the bay-side wall, a rank ditch running along side it. A dozen chickens and roosters pecked at the ground. On the other side of the fence, a canopy spanned out over a concrete slab supporting a set of Cybex-brand exercise equipment: a bench press, a pulley machine, a leg press (in use by a man hoisting a serious number of plates). Somewhere behind me a voice sang, “This place can never be my home.”
Separated from Tower Street’s main area by a wall and series of gates, the George Davis Center opened into a yard the size of a soccer pitch. Two brick buildings similar to the cellblocks in the main yard stood perpendicular to one another. One, however, seemed to have no windows on its ground floor. On closer inspection, I saw a dozen or so slits cut into brick, several feet up the wall. Each was somewhere between the size of a mail slot and a shoe box. Along the base of the structure ran a waste ditch. This was the acute ward, said the guard.
As we approached the ward’s front door, two cats fought in an empty half-barrel nearby. A guard let us in. The air was stale and heavy, the walls and floors dark and covered in dirt. As an immediate sensory experience, I can only compare it to walking into a wine cellar or a storage facility – one that smells like an outhouse. A spider web two feet across hung from one corner of the entrance hall. A dark stairwell led up and a corridor ran to the right and left, each wing bleakly illuminated by naked fluorescent bulbs. Cells ran along either side of the corridor; two dozen heavy metal doors with small eye-level grates faced each other. I walked the length of one hall, avoiding the few outstretched arms that met me, and peeking into the grates that did not have jabbering faces pressed up against them. The cells, only a little larger than those in the spillover ward, held between one and four inmates. A trace of natural light came through the slit in the bricks and the holes along the floor that opened out onto the waste ditch. There were no bathrooms. These inmates, too, were locked down from 3:30p.m. to 7a.m.
As I walked back down the hall, more arms reached out through the grates, more incomprehensible salutations echoed off the hard walls and floor, more sweaty faces peered out. At no time inside Tower Street did I feel more uneasy. My mind played snatches of Hollywood movies in which bleeding-heart prison observers get a faceful of feces or worse, and I left the acute ward before touring its other wings. On the balcony of the adjacent building, a few inmates watched us emerge. They lived in a dormitory-style room on the building’s top floor. They said they had had no water there for three months.
As we passed the chickens on our way back to the chapel again, the fat inmate in the green-striped shirt ran up to talk to me.
“Can I ask you a question?” He panted.
“Sure.” I said.
“Does Harvard have distance learning programs?”
“Distance learning . . .,” he caught his breath. “Classes by correspondence.”
Reflexively, I explained that the Berkman Center offered a few courses online, and that the University had some sort of night-school extension program, but that neither program, of course, could confer official degrees---
“Wait, wait.” I abruptly came to. “What?”
“Classes by correspondence,” he said. “They have computers at South Camp,” the minimum-security prison we would visit the next morning.
* * *
As the sun dipped, the chapel disgorged its audience. The Harvard teammates carried souvenirs: blue, collared shirts emblazoned with the Department of Corrections logo. Matching coffee mugs. A large and noisy crowd of inmates had gathered at the chapel’s entrance. They seemed much bolder now: many asked to have their photographs taken; a few catcalled to women from the Harvard team as we prepared to leave. I tried to squeeze in some last-minute interviews and spotted a man, one of the inmates who had performed that day, with a red ribbon pinned to his shirt.
“Are you an orderly?” I asked him.
“What is that red ribbon for?”
“It is AIDS awareness week.”
The man with the blue bible reappeared, asking for more money. The man with the scarred face reminded me about the clothes I should send him. One of the Harvard teammates told me that I’d just missed a final ovation for Prescod.
The guards escorted us all out. By the bus, I rubbed my hands together like MacBeth before smoking one of Steve Martin’s filterless cigarettes.
* * *
A uniformed corrections officer met the Harvard team, fresh off the bus, at the gates of South Camp the next morning. He gathered us around him. Several team members wore their new Department of Corrections shirts.
“You will be filming a church service this morning,” he said. “The Deputy Commissioner has instructed that there will be no wandering off away from the building where the church service will be. . . . That is what happened yesterday and this is not supposed to happen.”
“Can there be guided tours?” asked one of the cameramen.
In the line for visitors passes, half a dozen older Jamaican women waited in Sunday dresses and hats, as if to prefigure the state of civility (relative to Tower Street) we would find inside. The yard was around one-tenth the size of Tower Street, and far fewer prisoners roamed about. Occupancy was at 235, well short of the 260-person maximum. A line of cellblocks connected by sidewalks ran the length of the bayside fence. A sign over the dormitory across the yard read “Welcome to Rehab”; outside the hall’s front door, some two dozen pairs of shoes lay in neat rows.
If South Camp seemed less active than Tower Street, its energy seemed less aimless. A man in sandals and a tam raked leaves. Others picked litter from the yard and hauled it to a garbage pile with a wheelbarrow. Some washed clothes in a concrete basin. Two men raked a grassless space between two, small netless soccer goals. Many straightened their clothes as they hurried toward the “Chapel/Multi-Purpose Hall,” where a man in a silver tie and confetti vest led The Inner Expression Band through rehearsals for the morning service.
The PA system was less sophisticated than Tower Street’s: only two speakers. A rusty piece of weightlifting equipment was wedged between the church and the chain link fence outside. A working water fountain stood in one corner of the church. A plaque at the entrance read, “Donated by Food for the Poor. Feb. 7, 1990.”
The Harvard team filed into the pews, and the service began. Younger inmates took turns leading the congregation in prayer and song. The piano was out of tune. Prisoners walked in and out of the church throughout the service. Many wore button-down shirts; some wore watches, sunglasses, baseball hats, bandanas. I saw at least three inmates with red ribbons on their chests. A man in a soccer jersey looked in through one window, eating an ice cream cone.
At the church’s entrance, the woman who had worn the camouflage skirt and I stood making conversation with inmates. I complimented one man on the homemade pendant hanging from his beaded necklace: a small black and white laminated portrait of Haile Selassie.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Who is that?” asked the woman.
“Selassie,” he said.
“Who is that?” she said.
Desmond Green, whom I had not seen that morning, appeared in the church’s doorway. He asked if I would do an interview for a news program on channel TVJ. I figured why not – no point in adhering to the canon of journalistic ethics at this point. Green led me behind one of the cellblocks, where he introduced me to a newswoman and her cameraman. The tape rolled, and she asked why the Harvard team had come to Jamaica. I explained Nesson’s project. She asked what I had seen. I said that the proper question was what I had not seen, since prison officials would not let us see anything outside the chapel. (My interview was cut from the segment broadcast about the Harvard team that night).
When the interview ended, I asked Green if I could take a look around the prison.
“We’re working on it. Already you will notice a difference here, though.” He left to gather other Harvard people for TV interviews.
The film crews had wandered into the main yard, away from the church. One crew filmed a man singing; the other, a man juggling a soccer ball. I walked along the sidewalk connecting the cellblocks and met an inmate named Kevin Woollery. He had been at South Camp four weeks, he said, after a seven-year stint at Saint Catherine’s. He’d been convicted of manslaughter when he killed a coworker on an electrical welding job.
“On the Friday I was supposed to be paid, he sent someone to kill me. He was armed with a gun. In self-defense, I cut his neck with a knife.”
That was a long time ago. Now he was a religious man, a songwriter. He said he preferred “Western gospel” and Mento. He offered to sing me one of this tunes. A guard in a green uniform interrupted and asked me to return to the church. I said that I would, and he turned and left.
“This song is called ‘You Must Be Wise,’” said Woollery, beaming. “I haven’t recorded it yet.” He swayed and snapped his fingers and began belting a tune, acapella, a few inches from my face. A few bars in, the snout of a video camera poked over my shoulder as one of the documentarians lined up a shot.
We must defend our dignity like
President Bill Clinton.
We must defend out dignity like
President Bill Clinton. We must defend our dignity like
We must defend our dignity like
President Mandela. The song had at least a dozen verses. When Woollery wrapped it up, he asked if I would wait until he returned with some things he had made. I stood talking with the cameraman. I smelled marijuana in the air. Another prison guard asked us to return to the church and walked away before we could answer. Woollery ran up holding a shiny picture frame. He’d made it from the linings of discarded powdered milk containers, 150 Jamaican dollars worth. He had woven the thin foil strips like wicker.
Soon the guards began to herd us back out the front gate. Outside by the bus, I saw Wendy Seltzer, who with Eric Wiseman had come along to help “wire” the prisons. I asked her how it went.
She smiled and shrugged. “We saw some computers.”
“Not what you expected?”
“Oh, they were nice, we just didn’t get to do anything,” she said, “at all. They weren’t online. They weren’t networked. And the person who could have given us authority to install [software] wasn’t there.”
* * *
On the bus, Desmond Green sat down next to me. I asked about the relationship between Reverence for Life and the rehabilitation program, generally.
“For example,” I said, “are there inmates in the rehabilitation program who are not in Reverence for Life?”
“I don’t think so,” said Green. “Reverence for Life is the fuel for the rehabilitation program.”
“Right. But I understand that there are some members of rehab who aren’t members of Reverence for Life, right?”
“Reverence for Life affects every living thing.”
“Right. But take me for example. I’m not in Reverence for Life, right?”
“You don’t think you are.”
I reverted to my original question.
“You have to understand something about corrections professionals,” Green said. “They are like a universal fraternity. They all behave the same. They manage to become impersonal and so they cannot rehabilitate anyone because rehabilitation is about contact and trust. You can’t develop trust for something from a distance. Most of them are configured to prevent that. You ask them why, and they say it’s for security. But it’s less out of security than out of a custodial consideration.”
I asked him to explain.
“They have an incentive -- a salary and a pension -- to sustain the prison population. You stay in the system too long, the mentality too long, and you violate your humanity.”
“Is there a rehabilitation program at the George Davis Center?” I asked.
“No. When I go down there [to the GDC] it’s mainly a question of those who can come out.”
“So there is, or isn’t, some sort of rehabilitation for the GDC inmates?”
“What, for example?”
“Well, there is the intent.”
I asked him to elaborate.
“We supply people with our literature. And the images.”
“You know, the t-shirts with the logo, and the formula . . . We give them books. But they’re only given to a small number because of a lack of funds.”
“What sort of books?”
“Our literature, the Passport to a Healthy Lifestyle.” The Passport explained the seven “ports,” or principles, of Reverence for Life.
“What do you mean by images, exactly?” I asked.
“The images are just identifiers that you’re one of those who accept yourself and who have learned how to treat people as you would yourself.”
“So you give t-shirts to the mental inmates?”
“If we have it. We give everybody the message that we have in whatever form we have it.”