14 October 2005
Bureaucracy! Today was a day of bureaucracy.
15 October 2005
Today we visited the women of Fort Augusta ACC. Nothing was as I expected. Or rather, almost everything exceeded my expectations. We woke and went through what has become the usual routine: a round robin of phone calls, a bit of miscommunication, and the first of several daily personality clashes.
After the Commissioner dropped off a table of contents from the British Prisoner’s Handbook (Jamaica still wears the shackles of colonialism – it seems without awareness), Kevin and Amilcar picked us up. For once Kevin was on time. Either out of respect for us and our nervousness about having enough time for the interviews, or out of an unspoken concern that perhaps he would not be able to bend the rules as usual so we could complete our task. I assume it was the former. On our way to Fort Augusta we stopped for fast food (though it took quite some time) at Burger King. The forces of globalization are awesome, and troubling. The silver lining of this cloud is that the franchise did offer one Jamaican dish. Nonetheless, it’s a shame that Burger King hasn’t yet been forced to shutter its Jamaican windows like McDonald’s has.
As we munched on the greasy products of capitalism, we drove out of Kinston, over a bridge, and into no man’s land. Spanish Town Road was speckled with tiny ponds, and from time-to-time resembled a river. On our way, we drove through neighborhoods that society long ago forgot. Places where men stood in the street, next to their ramshackle houses with tin roofs, waiting for something to happen. Maybe someday someone will have an opportunity for them. Maybe someday the hand of fortune will reach that far out.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, Fort Augusta came into view. Its massive walks were as foreboding outside as in. A large metal gate blocked access to the grounds, and the guards manning it proved worthy adversaries. As soon as we pulled up, the guards sized our group up. They recognized Kevin, but that didn’t prevent them from slamming the partially open gate shut. We waited, as we’ve learned to do here. A guard peeked out through a tiny circular door in the gate. She disappeared, and we continued to wait. Then there was some stern discussion between the guard and Kevin. Even though she knew him, and even though the Commissioner had made arrangements for our visit, the guard did not want to let us in. Perhaps her training in bureaucracy had conditioned her to make even the simplest of visits difficult.
Finally, we were let in. What we saw was not what I expected. I can’t remember exactly what it was that I expected, but what we saw certainly wasn’t it. Small buildings and fences dotted the campus. The dirt and concrete pathways were soaked from the rain. Avoiding puddles took great concentration. What trivial things can occupy the mind – we were in a prison, a place where so many people’s lives have ended, delicately picking our way through puddles so as not to get wet. Before heading to the SET lab, we were “processed.” I don’t know that I’ve ever been processed before this trip, but since arriving in Jamaica, I’ve been processed daily. Naturally, our processing took some time. It took place in a small building that was packed with activity. As I entered the reception room, two signs caught my eyes. One was a mission statement that discussed how the prison’s mission was to “empower” its clients. I welled up with anger. How dare they call these women clients? And what business did they have talking about rehabilitation – it’s not as though Corrections was particularly eager to help these women, or even supportive of Kevin’s efforts to do so. I wanted to lash out at them.
A chalkboard on the wall also caught my attention. It announced that there were 185 inmates on this particular day, and that 184 of them were present, while 1 was “out.” I wondered what that meant, what had come of the woman who was out. Later, during the SET meeting, we learned that an inmate who was in the hospital for treatment had passed. I imagine that tomorrow the board will read 184 inmates, with 0 out. After much time, questioning, and activity, we were equipped with visitor’s passes and ushered to the SET lab.
Even on the outside the lab announced itself as an uplifting spiritual center. Painted more brightly than the other buildings, it stood out like an oasis. It was even more so on the inside. But for the bars near the entrance, we could have been anywhere. Certainly, it did not seem like we were in a prison. After we acquainted ourselves with the lab, chaos ensued. “Clients” began to flood the building. By the time everyone was inside, it was standing room only. The women of Fort Augusta were of all shapes, sizes, and types. Some of them were curious about us, and many were outright welcoming. Several were skeptical, however. Not saying much, and shuttering at the idea of being subject to an interview. Kevin’s presence clearly helped to put them at ease, but even Kevin cannot completely soothe a prisoner who is confronted with inquisitive strangers under the watchful eye of the guards.
Before we could begin, Mr. Taylor – sent to supervise our visit – threw up another bureaucratic barrier. He told Alex that we were going to have to blur out the inmate’s faces during filming. Alex stood up to him and stared him down until he retreated. No one’s faces were blurred out.
Many of the women declined our request to interview them. Some were shy, while others did not want their faces on tape or broadcast to the world. Others, I imagine, were afraid to speak because the guards were there. Still, three women agreed to help us: Fiona, Stacy, and Nadine. Fiona was brave enough to go first – after a little coaxing. She is a mother of 5 from Brittan, incarcerated for carrying drugs. Just like the Commissioner told us. At least half of the women in Fort Augusta are foreigners who were caught carrying drugs. She spoke most critically about the prison, describing the difficulties she had with the food, the sun, and the culture. Yet she also spoke of the positive relationships she had built with the other ladies, and the opportunities provided by SET.
Stacy went second. What a beautiful woman! Her elegant features and sparkling personality captivated us all. Having seen Fiona, she was more at ease with us, and seemed to enjoy telling her story – or at least the version of it that was appropriate for the guards to hear. She was strong and focused. In prison only 4 months, she seemed to have already found her way. In for firearm possession, Stacy didn’t elaborate on her story. I suspect it’s a tragic one – she didn’t fit. Kevin hypothesized that she might have taken the fall for a boyfriend. Given just the slightest of opportunities, I wager that Stacy would be a star. I hope she is someday given that chance.
After Stacy, Nadine spoke. Nadine was the most emotional, and the most transformed by SET. From thug to mentor and role model. Nadine’s story came out less in her interview than in the SET meeting conducted afterwards. She is such a strong and generous woman. Like the others, she emphasized the importance of maintaining focus. She also described how she had to learn to overcome her anger. There is so much for the rest of us to learn from these women. The way that they negotiate with each other, and mediate their problems. The way they respect each other.
The most moving part of the day took place after the interviews, during the SET meeting. Kevin took advantage of his first opportunity to introduce Mr. Taylor to the SET program by asking the women to talk about what SET means to them. They discussed the opportunity, community, and support it provided. We were all moved. I could barely keep from crying. Out of respect for these women, and what they’ve been through, I held back. My feelings are irrelevant – they are the one’s who have suffered. Despite the emotional power of the meeting, it was conducted with incredible precision and order. These women have their act together. Perhaps the order and thoroughness helps to give them peace. They prayed, went over the minutes from last week’s meeting, and discussed. They discussed leadership, returning to the outside, the projects they were working on inside – so much is going on! The women would have continued forever if Kevin did not call the meeting to a close. Afterwards the women were so generous with us. Chatting us up, talking about fashion. They even gave each of us a page in their visitor’s book to write a note. I could’ve filled an entire book thanking them and telling them how strong, beautiful, and inspirational they are.
After the meeting, we handed in our badges and prepared to go. While Kevin and I were waiting for Alex and Diane to wrap up, a police car packed with new prisoners came through the gates. They looked so scared. One had her suitcase – probably another foreign drug runner. The rest just had plastic bags and purses. More women for SET to help, more lives to touch. So much work to do.
Once we were back on the outside (not a trivial accomplishment), we drove to a carpenter’s workshop to see the furnishings he was building for Kevin’s new office. The strong smell of cedar and beautiful woodwork were refreshing. Like Kevin’s work, the furnishings were taking shape, but not yet polished – both works in progress. After the carpenter’s, we visited Kevin’s new office. His creativity came through in the vibrant colors of the walls and his vision for each of the empty rooms. Kevin will succeed, and he will take many with him. He promised as much tonight while we were jogging. He is even stronger and more determined than those he’s helped. His goodness comes through in conversation. During our jog he answered all of my questions with so much genuine concern and optimism. He is an inspiration. A strong reminder that I will fail if I spend my life in a law firm defending patent infringers.
Our last adventure for today was an interview with Anthony Ashwood. It’s hard to believe that such a mild mannered, kind man was convicted of murder and took guards hostage while inside. It’s more amazing that he’s free now. Free from death row, free from the burdens of anger and hatred, free from the cycle of crime. And just like the women, his wisdom, his advice to new inmates is to stop, look, listen, and think. To observe before reacting to their new surroundings.
Today was a beautiful day and a good start. We heard so many amazing stories. Now we just have to do something with them. Something that makes a real difference.
16 October 2005
Inspiration, hope, and anger each individually consumed my person today. Convicted felons – murders – inspired me. Kevin and his radio show gave me hope. And then there’s the Commissioner. He angered me.