Sun | Mar 24, 2019

Mark Wignall | Prisoner rehabilitation will never win votes

Published:Sunday | January 20, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Cecil doesn't remember it, but when he was about 10 years old in 1972, his aunt, who raised him, told him that his mother carried him to her five years before and told her that she had to leave the island in a hurry and she would soon be back.

That was how his mother abandoned him. His father? Don't know the fellow and it seems he has only recently begun to understand what a father-and-son normal relationship is.

It is much easier a chance that you, the reader, will interact with an ex-con than it is you will criminalise your life to become one. So, you have a vested interest in ensuring that those who have done time turn out to be normal social beings and not psychologically scarred misfits.

A few years ago, Britain offered us a prison by invoking the commonality that both countries would share in Britain sending back Jamaican ex-cons, and we having absolutely no space to keep them living like humans. We said no.

Politically, that made us seem strong and filled with big talk. In reality, our prisons are basically dumping houses for those whom the wider society would much prefer be persecuted, locked away and forgotten.

Born in Clarendon, Cecil, at 11, was living in a Kingston 13 community. At 12, he was shipped off to the Homestead Place of Safety. "Di year before that, the big man fi di community gi wi some gun and me get one fi use but not fi keep," he said.

Explain that, I said.

'If di crew a mek a move, a bigger man in it gi mi di gun. We mek di move and money collect, mi gi back di gun until next time.

At age 21, the law caught up with him. Shooting with intent. Possession of illegal firearm. Murder. '"Mi did have gun, but mi never commit dat crime mi get try fah. So, me get 19 year and me do sixteen."

In 1999, Cecil was out. He had used his gun mostly in political warfare between who he describes as A China Man and Black Man war whey two a dem a gu way gun' and, when he was freed at just a few years shy of 40, he was hardened, determined and, though an illiterate, nothing would stop him.

Two years later he was in England and it was a socially natural choice for him to hit the streets of the grittiest areas to seek his subsistence, what he could of his humanity and the stuff to make his pocket feel healthily heavy.

 

Animals better off than Jamaican prisoners

 

He spent time at the Gun Court, Tower Street Correctional and St Catherine District prison. 'Yu have a heavy board door so yu don't know if is night or day. Dem let you out at 10 a.m. fi deal wid yu slop bucket. Yu carry dat, dump it, rinse it and carry it back.'

'Then a roll a corn bread an a piece a butter and some cocoa water. Bout one dem serve lunch. Some callaloo wid di trash on it and some soya milk. At about four, yu get dinner. Some rotten fish weh di fly carry wid dem. It stink, wid rice, but yu eat it."

Cecil tells me that while he was in England, he stayed far from the gun but he dealt in every type of illegal street drug there was. "Coke, heroin, and anything you can smoke, eat or inject. When dem hol mi, mi neva knew seh prison can so comfortable."

It was while Cecil was a prisoner that he discovered a concept total new to him. Him getting treated like a human being. 'In Jamaica, prison yu haffi wash out yu slop bucket and den wash yu clothes in it. In England, yu leaves you clothes at di door an it pick up and get wash. Yu have TV, electric kettle and yu can learn a skill."

When Cecil was 40 a girlfriend wrote him. 'Mi get di letter in prison and mi could mek out some numbers on di envelope so mi ask a bredrin fi read it fi mi. Him ask mi if mi nuh want learn fi read an write. Within six months in prison in England dem teach me how fi read and write.'

Cecil is now 57, owns a beaten up though functional car plus a house which he acquired 12 years ago. "Mi work money inna prison in England and carry back £3,800 pounds when mi get deported after parole."

According to him, "Man whey jus leave Jamaican prison is a worse man dan when him did go in. Yu si my nose. Is a prison warder a Jamaica bruk mi nose when mi inna mi 30s. Mi whole face did swell up. Every kind a chink an rat and even pigeon deh a Jamaica prison. Man can't survive dat and come out better. Only bitter.'

 

A terribly creaking public health system

 

Her voice was nervous as we spoke. A few days before someone had called me about a personal tragedy that had taken place two Saturdays ago. It had led me to speak with her, a junior doctor who also sounded as if she had taken another person's tragedy as her own.

She gave me the name of the well-known hospital. "The lady was 40 years old and she was admitted being very weak, vomiting, having irregular heartbeat and shortage of breath. We needed an intensive care bed (ICB) with all the medical tools attached, especially an electrical pump so that she could be supplied with oxygen. Me and other doctor had to take turns and start from about 10 a.m. to manually pump."

In the interim, the hospital was sending out all over the island trying to find that bed. They were all occupied and not a single one was available.

'When I came back on shift, the other doctor was crying. Between the two of us and valuable assistance from nursing staff, we had manually pumped for eight hours. She told me the lady died at six that evening. Just because we could not get the needed equipment. Dead at 40 years of age."

A few weeks ago, a lady was most distraught as she related to me how she had lost her brand new baby. She told about her own horror as she witnessed what can only be described as medical personnel being pushed to the limit of their capabilities. She went as a healthy person to the public institution to have her baby.

She left alone after her baby was pronounced dead. Many tell her that they are willing to talk but two days later they have changed their minds. The seniority in many of our public health facilities are, many of them, laws unto themselves.

'Some patients who are considered premium are directed to senior doctors' private practice. And I can tell you that it is not only the patients that follow them to the private practice. Read between the lines," she said as she gave me details that would be very hard to prove unless I was prepared to be a fly on the wall of many of those institutions and remain there for weeks.

Hospital security seems to be very tight at the University Hospital. Nineteen years ago, when I spent six days there in a ward, I could not stomach the bland food they were feeding me. The carrots looked quite delicious in the soup until I touched them and they turned to mush.

The day before, Chupski had smuggled in some bun and cheese and I had gobbled it up. By the evening, I tried to sneak out to buy more. The guard stopped me but took my money and got it for me. I ate silently under the covers that night.

Mark Wignall is a political and public-sector commentator.

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