Vaneisa: Inside an abandoned world; breaking the cycle of violence and cruelty

EPL Infrafred Sauna

LAST August, I wrote about Wishing for Wings, the 2013 book by Debbie Jacob, and the 2022 film by Dr Kim Johnson. I’d written about the indefatigable efforts of these two in promoting the culture of this melodious, cacophonous paradox called Trinidad and Tobago.

The film’s premiere was then being held at the Festival of Cinema in New York and had been nominated for Best Documentary. It had not yet been aired in its homeland.

The cover for Wishing for Wings.

On 10 March, its day came. At the International School of Port of Spain, a well-appointed institution serving mostly the children of expatriates, where Debbie had taught, Kim’s docu­mentary was shown for the first time in public.

In a nutshell, it is the story of Debbie’s journey as she tried to prepare a group of inmates at the Youth Training Centre (YTC) for CXC English exams.

Having seen the film, and read the book, I could tell from the obvious poshness of the audience that they would be encountering a world that would not ordinarily enter their consciousness outside of newspaper headlines.

I don’t want to go into the film or the book here—they are both excellent, inspiring and moving. I believe that everyone with eyes to see and ears to hear and brains to make connections should be exposed to both.

A prison education programme in USA.
(via The Society Pages)

From our Prime Minister and his policy-making Cabinet colleagues to the little girls and boys pelting kicks and cuffs at each other in our schools, everyone should have the opportunity to get a glimpse of the world it reveals.

For those who have the capacity, multiple screenings across the nation should be arranged as a matter of ­civic responsibility. I don’t like getting preachy, but we cannot keep pretending that the answer to the barbarity that stalks the land is to increase policing and weapons, or to invoke ­deities.

What makes it seem so urgent and necessary, in my eyes, was the detail of the innards of the lives of those who have been incarcerated at the YTC and, by extension, the prison system generally.

When we read of the violence and cruelty of the crimes breathing down our back every single day, it is hard to remember that these are the outcomes of similar patterns of violence and cruelty. They are a result of an awful and heart-breaking chain of events that have robbed so many of the innocence of childhood that their sense of humanity has been stripped away.

An illustration of the cycle of violence.

Layers of experiences are uncovered within the book and the film—from the range of people who have interacted with each other through the common factor of crime and punishment. Not just the inmates, but wardens and administrators. Many voices are heard, leaving one longing to hear more.

Marc Friday is one of those extraordinary voices. Here is what he wrote when Debbie asked the class to write something about the ocean.

The Ocean

The whales, the sharks,

The crabs, the seals

The death, the pain,

The secrets concealed

The rage she feels

The night she sees

The world she holds

The mouths she feeds

The moonlight’s glitter,

The sunshine’s smile,

The roar of my mother

I’m the ocean’s child.

Former inmate Marc Friday is a talented writer.

Marc had demonstrated impressive creativity with his writing assignments. He had won several calypso competitions, one with “I was not born a Criminal”, and he is keen to study drama.

I read the transcript of one of his interviews with Kim and was repeatedly impressed by the way he expressed himself. Describing his first meeting with Jahmai Donaldson, another extraordinary mind, Marc said, “I was seeing my mentality staring back at me,” and he knew it would create “a kind of tension” between them. These two “rankers” became friends, though, and model students in Debbie’s class.

Marc was at the screening last week, finally seeing the film he had been a part of nearly a decade ago. He was blown away by the film, and the reception, because he had never “felt so special” in his life.

He was asked to describe some of his experiences and he made such practical and unexpected points that it would be really valuable if he could be commissioned to be part of every single screening so people can ask him questions.

Marc Friday has benefitted from a prison reform programme, spearheaded by Debbie Jacob.

When the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Social Development and the Ministry of National Security (and other civic-minded corporate citizens) put their heads together and arrange these screenings, this must be part of the plan.

Marc sat there and explained the deep impact of attending the performance of the Marionettes at Queen’s Hall that Christmas. Not only were they awed by the gentility and pomp of the event, but they felt they were recognised as people.

He had described their gratitude to Debbie years earlier in the interview.

“In my eye you put we up dey, you put we one notch higher—instead of them having to point dey fingers and say, look the ghetto dog and them, they cyah call we that now, because what you know, I know and what you could do, I could do too.

Author Debbie Jacob is an advocate for prison reform.

“Who knows? I could do it better. Miss Debbie take the ghetto-ness outta we mind.”

Despite her misgivings, Debbie persevered because she could not abandon the lads. We’ve collectively contributed to this abandonment and we should give them the chance to take the ghetto-ness outta our minds.

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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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