Vaneisa: A poignant wingspan of beauty and hope—the prison reform passion of Debbie and Kim

Grief was palpable in her Facebook post; a jolting reminder of the savage, indelicate and arbitrary nature of life. Akili Charles had been gunned down in the night, mere days after his legal challenge to the criminal justice system had been supported by the Privy Council. Those accused of murder can now apply for bail—a landmark ruling.

“RIP Akili Charles. I loved you and believed in you with all my heart,” wrote Debbie Jacob early in the morning of July 31.

Photo: Akili Charles was murdered on 31 July 2022.

Just the day before, she had lamented her post-Covid experience.

“I’m so tired of coughing and feeling down and confused. I want to move more and exercise as I once did. Exercise always lifted my spirits. It’s hard to concentrate, feel a sense of purpose, feel the present or feel excited about the future. It’s tiring to keep a thought, express any feelings or feel any connection to people. Every little disappointment feels like insurmountable pain.”

It must have deepened her anguish.

Debbie had taught CXC English and Caribbean history at the Port of Spain prison, and Charles had taken those classes, along with a PVC furniture-making class. He had also taken part in the first prison debate which she organised.

“Charles’s work was instrumental in laying the foundation for the Wishing for Wings/Prison debate teams in all ten of this country’s prisons, and he kept the PoS Prison always in the running,” she wrote days afterwards.

Image: Prison reform.

I had been paying attention because I wanted to write about the upcoming world premiere of the documentary film, “Wishing for Wings”, excellently done by Dr Kim Johnson.

The film is based on Debbie’s 2013 book of the same name, which is just as excellently written. She had tentatively begun teaching at the Youth Training Centre (YTC), the remand centre for boys in 2010. She ended up preparing seven of them for the English exams, and her book is the result of her newspaper columns tracing the journey—both hers and that of her students.

It could have been that similarity which encouraged Kim to record the story. His book (a beautiful and bountiful collector’s item), “The Illustrated Story of Pan”, now in its second edition, was also birthed by his long series, “Pan Pioneers”, which first ran in the Express.

When Debbie’s book was published nearly 10 years ago, I was so moved by it that I am sure I did a review. Not only was it beautifully and compassionately written, it offered a sensitive and detailed insight into the lives and social conditions faced by these young men.

Photo: Author and journalist Dr Kim Johnson.
(Copyright Roger Thompson)

I have seen an early version of the film, which so faithfully reflects the characteristics of the book, that it made me choke up more than once. So I wanted to herald its premiere in Queens at the Festival of Cinema, NYC on 11 August, where it has already been nominated for Best Documentary. It would have been wonderful for this film to have been first seen at home, but failing that, anyone who can attend, should do so.

Both Kim and Debbie, people I consider friends who have made immense contributions to our society, have spent practically all of their adult lives indefatigably pursuing their passions. Kim’s work on documenting the history and culture of the steel pan is truly formidable. Most of it is in print, but he has written and directed a docu-drama, “PAN! Our Music Odyssey” which came out at around the same time as Debbie’s book.

Debbie’s foray into the prison world, despite misgivings, was propelled by her desire to do community service. It spiralled into the Wishing for Wings Foundation—money donated by well-wishers went towards forming an NGO. She wanted prisons to be thought of as a community. It’s working, though it needs support.

Photo: A prisoner reflects behind bars.

Another NGO, Children’s Ark, “built a library in the Port of Spain Prison for me so inmates could read to their children”.

Over the years, Debbie has remained committed to encouraging literacy and reading, something very dear to me. She has done book reviews, and she has compiled booklists for a range of readers, children and adults. She has taken the time to compile genres, providing brief descriptions of the books she recommends, and she has constantly urged people to discover the wondrous worlds between book covers. She has also given online links to books and other resources.

It is a breathtaking endeavour because it requires a great amount of research to assemble all of this. Of course, it has helped that she has been a librarian for years, but there are many librarians who have not been driven to this kind of active service. This is not to knock librarians, whom I have found to be generally very helpful by nature, but one has to approach them—Debbie comes to you.

Photo: Debbie Jacob is an advocate for prison reform.

It is unfortunate that newspapers do not have as wide currency as they once did, and much of their valuable contents go unnoticed by those for whom they would be of most benefit. Perhaps the Ministry of Education could invest in supplying schools with them, enabling access, and even introduce a weekly session where students are able to read the newspapers.

We need to see the commitment of Kim and Debbie for what it is; to applaud and support them because they represent the qualities that give us hope. You never know who you might touch.

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About Vaneisa Baksh

Vaneisa Baksh is a columnist with the Trinidad Express, an editor and a cricket historian. She is the author of a biography of Sir Frank Worrell.

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