Charles NessonThis case study is of some necessity a personal story. I shall try to keep introspection to a minimum. The story begins for me with Swain v. Alabama, a miserably unjust death-penalty case denying relief to a black man convicted of raping a white woman by an all-white Alabama jury, decided by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1966 when I was clerking for Justice Harlan. My frustration over the outcome of that case led me to enlist in the fight for racial justice by taking a job doing civil rights work with the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice.

Berkman CenterFast forward to the mid-90’s. Now I’m Billion Dollar Charlie, at least in name and still in aspiration. Now I’m Weld Professor of Law and founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, with a mission and a budget to see whether cyberspace technology could be used to give the wisdom of Solomon and Socrates a new rhetorical sway in a globally connected world. The first question I sought to ask and answer—would technology drive an even deeper wedge between rich and poor, black and white? Could a way be found to use Internet to re-balance the scales of justice?

This question led me to search out a client. Serendipity led me to Jamaica. Fern showed me a picture of the valley of the Rio Grande River coming down from the Blue Mountain in Port Antonio Jamaica, so beautiful that we felt we had to go. We went and were captivated by the Jamaican experience -- beauty of the country, intensity of its histories, the fun and friendliness and articulate spirit of its people. Yet for all its resources, Jamaica has overwhelming problems -- crime, number one. Cocaine now pulses through the island from south to north.

As Fern and I were exploring Jamaica I chanced to hear a speech on the radio by the Jamaica’s Minister of Technology, Philip Paulwell, who said he had taken on a 13-year old boy named Makonnen as his technology advisor. This interested me. I contacted his office and made the acquaintance of Camella Rhone, the Director General of the Ministry (head of staff). In her I felt I had found my “ client.”

In 1998 I organized an exploratory conference called CyberJam in Port Antonio, with Camella as co-host. We invited fifteen Americans and fifteen Jamaicans. We gathered a meeting among mixed and intelligent people to talk about the Internet. We discussed how Jamaica could take advantage of opportunity in the coming cyber environment to integrate and express Jamaica’s identity. Our first Port Antonio Principle was that the Berkman Center did not come with a project or a solution, but rather to amplify, if we could, a project of Jamaica, from Jamaica, and for Jamaica. This put the onus on our Jamaican partners to focus us on a project.

More than a year passed before Camella Rhone discharged this responsibility. Our CyberJam meeting had been a good beginning, but it was also diffuse. I invited Camella to participate in the Berkman Center’s Internet & Society Conference held in Cambridge in November 2000, and insisted then that she focus our effort. Ultimately she invited our attention to a concept called Reverence for Life, which she thought had potential transformative power, and urged us to do what we could to amplify it. Reverence for Life is a non-denominational philosophy of self-development which had taken root in Kingston’s prisons, embraced and supported by the Commissioner of Corrections, a man named John Prescod.

Desmond GreenPrescod had been put in charge of Jamaica’s prison system in 1993. A military man, by background, he was appalled by what he saw in the prisons. He set out to change the culture of the prisons from penal to rehabilitative. To try to accomplish this he enlisted the assistance of a philosopher/preacher named Desmond Green, who accepted the assignment of going into the prisons to promote Reverence for Life among the inmates. Desmond Green preaches self-control and self-development through simple steps: Get in touch with yourself. Attend to your breathing, attend to what you eat, to how you exercise, how you speak, how you relate to others. Have reverence for life. He encouraged the formation of singing groups, and built trust by persuading Prescod to allow the temporary release of these groups to accept invitations from churches in Jamaica to sing on weekends, with minimal supervision. In fact, this program operated with minimal supervision. A test of trust was the inmates’ willingness to return at the end of the weekend furlough. The program flourished for several years without a single escape. Reverence for Life built a band room in the General Penitentiary, obtained musical instruments, and brought music to the prison.

Our initial approach was to capitalize on the inmates’ interest in music by using music as a means of teaching digital skills. We sought to develop a program in which computer labs in the prisons would serve as recording and production studios in which inmates would learn a range of useful (and employable) digital skills. This was a fine idea for an inmate skill-training program as far as it went, but it failed to take into account the opposition of the guards. Prescod had developed great antagonism for the warders, and they for him. From the warder viewpoint Prescod had taken the inmate side in a social environment in which the warders are powerful stakeholders with lives at risk. They felt he humiliated them. His rehabilitation program was in many ways an affront to their authority. In January 2000, when Prescod announced that he would extend his stay as commissioner for two more years, 800 guards went out on strike. Some say they expected the prisons would erupt in riot and Prescod would be forced to resign. But there was no riot. Prescod and Green had sufficiently established a trust environment sufficient to permit him to run the prisons for the next eighteen months with a skeleton crew of warders and a population of inmates who were largely controlling themselves and who were trusted to leave the prison in large numbers on weekend furloughs. This was the scene we’d come to observe and to document.

Wayne MarshallNot long after our first visits to Tower Street the warders won their fight with Prescod. Their union forced his resignation. The warders were brought back to work, with a new acting commissioner in charge. Prescod gone meant Green was gone. Control within the prison shifted. As the environment tightened and hope among inmates for future rehabilitation dwindled, temptation to break the bonds of trust grew and finally broke through in the form of escapes. All release programs were shut down, collapsing like a bubble. Our thought of introducing the technological tools for self-expression into the prisons was put on hold, our primary connections severed. We struggled during this time to maintain what connection we had and to develop new ones, but nothing much happened for nearly two more years. Wayne Marshall, who lived in Kingston for six months in 2004 conducting music workshops in computer labs in high schools and in the prisons, fairly captures this period in his blog entry, May 18, 2004.

Wayne’s Blog - back to prison, at last

although i had always vaguely intended to visit jamaica, my first trip here--in october of 2001--was an unexpected and unusual point of entry. one warm autumn afternoon, as i sat having some post-seminar beers with colleagues at the university of wisconsin, i got a phone-call from becca. she had called to tell me that her father, charlie, was interested in investigating a promising rehabilitation program in jamaica’s prison system. apparently, music played a strong role in the program, and charlie was hoping to enlist my ethnomusicological expertise to evaluate what we would be seeing and, if it truly were promising, to help him figure out a way that harvard’s intellectual and cultural capital could be used to support an innovative rehab effort. thus, the first place i went to in jamaica--directly after de-planing at norman manley international airport--was tower street prison, otherwise known as general penitentiary, or GP. considering how many american visitors to the island simply go straight to their all-inclusive hotels and rarely make it to kingston (never mind kingston’s highest-security jail), i enjoyed the irony--and the “reality-check”--of my introduction to jamaica. rather than beaches, fake rastas, and reggae, i got cell-blocks, real rude boys, and, yes, reggae.

upon arriving at tower street, we were led to the chapel which lies in the center of the courtyard and which was serving as the activity center of the rehab program. there, charlie, i, and thaddeus miles (who, with his expertise in public safety and digital media, rounded out our trio) were treated to a concert put on entirely by inmates. a “house band”--specializing in roots reggae but able to cover paul simon and pull-off a gospel tune or a dancehall riddim--accompanied various singers and groups as they performed original songs and compelling cover-versions of well-known jamaican and american favorites. overall, the performances were competent, though perhaps unremarkable (except for their context). and some were outstanding. what i was most struck by, however, was the way that the performance truly seemed to be as much for the inmates themselves as it was for us. a packed house of fellow prisoners sang along, offered exhortations and encouragement, and applauded each act. i was impressed with the comport and composure of the inmates, many of whom truly seemed to have had a conversion experience of sorts (there was an uneasy mix of christian, rasta, and new-age philosophies in the rhetoric) and were committed to respecting their own lives and those of others. but to put a long story on hold, the rehabilitation effort we went to investigate more or less fell apart after a series of security problems, institutional infighting (leading to the departure of the prison commissioner), and your everyday jamaican bureaucratic blockades. a second visit to the prisons about a month later, involving a much larger team of students, scholars, and documentarians of various sorts generated a bunch of media and some ideas about how we might help, but little in the ways of concrete, on-the-ground change emerged from these well-meaning efforts. (the clean-up of tower street’s facility for mentally-challenged and psychologically-unstable inmates is one glowing exception.)

despite various setbacks, charlie has been working consistently in the year and a half since our initial visit to get something happening in the prisons (and i somewhat less consistently). the talent, desire, need, and promise that we witnessed on that hot october morning in the tower street chapel, reaffirmed by periodic meetings with inspiring and eager inmates, has been enough to keep us going. last spring, as part of a berkman center conference that charlie organized, an initial draft, outlining the way harvard might facilitate and stimulate the department of correctional services’s rehabilitation efforts, was drawn up by charlie, high-ranking members of jamaica’s DCS, and others. although one might think that such cooperation would “seal the deal,” so to speak, one cannot underestimate the way that power-struggles, big bureaucracy, and the conservative tendencies of the prison business--where slip-ups have serious consequences--can hinder the passage of such a proposal. last september, during my month-long stay in kingston, charlie and i revised what was then the fourth draft of the proposal and submitted drafts five and six. by january, when becca and i arrived in kingston with hopes of getting prisoners making beats, we still were getting what seemed like the runaround. the idea that they were still reviewing our proposal seemed absurd to me. in a new development, however, we had the good fortune to connect with alton grizzle, a director at cornerstone ministries--the christian organization that has been granted the privilege of providing outside services, such as educational and vocational offerings, to inmates. even with this valuable link, though, we have been stymied all spring by what seem like bureaucratic obstacles (budget wrangling, check cutting) while waiting on the completion of a computer lab in the prison where all kinds of digital media production and computer literacy programs could take place. just last month, charlie got word that the proposal we submitted last fall--focusing on music and drama, with a radio show as a media outlet and educational “ feedback loop” --was finally approved. in an effort to get something going before becca and i have to return to the states, we arranged with grizzle to conduct a two-day series of digital music workshops at south camp prison, also located in kingston.

tower street was my first stop in jamaica, and south camp was my second. although the two prisons have much in common, they also have significant differences. as i mentioned above, tower street is the general penitentiary. as such, it contains all kinds of convicts, including a number of rather rough characters. it is terribly overcrowded, and violence erupts there regularly. if you have to go to prison in jamaica, GP is not the place you want to be. south camp, on the other hand, is for prisoners who have demonstrated some degree of good behavior. it is smaller, more open in construction, and prisoners appear to have greater freedom of movement. south camp was the flagship of the rehabilitation effort at its height, sending responsible inmates out on work-release and furloughs (programs that were discontinued after a couple less responsible inmates went AWOL). as the institution most poised to offer the kind of rehabilitation program we have proposed, south camp has been the site i have most often visited. i was there during each trip in the fall of 2001 and made three or four visits in august and september of 2002. as a result, i have developed relationships with several of the inmates who are more active in south camp’s musical, dramatic, and rehabilitation-centered circles. this has made my repeated visits to south camp more fulfilling as well as more frustrating. each time i show my face there again, the guys see that i am committed to getting something off the ground and greet me warmly. (this last week, one guy called me “ sir marsh,” which i liked.) at the same time, i feel bad about coming around every few months or so with the same song and dance, unable to really deliver. i mean, sure, these guys are used to waiting. they have nothing but time at this point, and they are perhaps better acquainted with the powerlessness one feels as a subject of jamaican bureaucracy than most others. all the same, or maybe precisely because of their greater familiarity with the way of the system, these men deserve to have their limited and reasonable desires fulfilled. they deserve vocational training and arts programs. and they deserve such things now.

we went back to south camp last week to whet these patient prisoners’ appetites, to demonstrate the promise of our program, and to gather support and interest. i think that we succeeded on all counts. knowing how central a role music plays in the inmates’ lives, i expected that our digital music workshop would be well-received. i was a little tentative about it, nevertheless, because the music creation software--especially with beginners--often leads to rather bloop-and-bleep-ish computer music which seems so distant from the live roots reggae that appears to be the favorite genre in the prisons. i am well aware of jamaicans’ (and reggae’s) predilection for cheesy synthesizers, however, and i trusted that these inmates’ strong desire simply to take part in any activity that provides some source of diversion or enrichment would be enough to engage them.

i began on tuesday with a brief demo of the software, showing the guys how to manipulate parameters such as tempo, add and change instruments and sampled sounds, and structure several patterns into song form. then i let them loose on their computers, where they worked studiously for several hours. (we arrived around 10:30, overcame various technical difficulties by around noon, and made music until around 3--two hours later than we had planned to stay.) the group comprised inmates who not only were involved with music and drama in the prison but who, supposedly, had already completed an introductory computing course. for some, though, fruityloops served not only as an introduction to digital music but to mousing around--clicking, dragging, using file menus--and getting to know the computer more generally. as i walked around the room, offering tips and tricks, i found myself explaining these basic skills as much as more sophisticated music-related and software-specific concepts. (here is some audio of the workshop in progress.) most of the men caught on quickly, and before long, as a half-dozen riddims played simultaneously, the room was transformed into a big soundclash--the jamaican term for a “battle” between two soundsystems and an apt description of the country’s soundscape more generally. all this music-making created quite a din (sometimes calling for a collective turn-down), but there was an undeniable energy to it. listen to the laughter elicited by the joyous noise in this second clip.

perhaps the most notable outcome of the week’s workshops was the audible progress many of the participants made in just two days. i began thursday’s workshop with a brief review of the basics followed by a more in-depth lesson on form. although some continued to master the basics of putting together a strong main pattern, a compelling loop, several began to structure their tracks more like songs, complete with intros, transitions, choruses, and breaks. compare, for example, the difference between the tracks that garfield put together on tuesday and then thursday. although the tuesday track is a loop with some potential, it gets a bit repetitive after a while, even with the quirky electro rhythms and dissonant bass. notice that the thursday riddim, however, not only has some form (including an intro and alternating sections), but the main loop itself gives one more to listen to: it’s got a lil’ bounce to it--a nice lilt--not to mention some futuristic sounds and a moving bassline. it’s also a bit more of a “one-drop” riddim than the first, drawing on the easy pace and steadiness of roots reggae. it makes a fine setting for one of garfield’s dub poems, as a matter of fact. garfield, who also goes by the name “step-out,” is one of the many talented dub poets i have come across in the jamaican prison system. (dub poetry comes out of the 1970s dub reggae tradition and usually has a righteous, political focus. two of the more well-known practitioners are mutabaruka and linton kwesi johnson. when done with wit and emotion, dub poetry can be quite a powerful form of expression.) throughout both workshops, garfield seemed to be working with a poem in mind, and at the end of the session on thursday he recited a poem to the riddim he had built. i was struck by how well the riddim’s form (significantly more developed than in the version above) matched the form of the poem. garfield’s dub poetry performance shows great promise for a marriage of south camp’s dub poetry and homegrown digital music production.


the final clip i would like to share is perhaps a better way to listen to all of this sound. it gives the riddims some human context, as the creators introduce themselves and their tracks while their peers listen on. we finished both days in this manner, going around the room with each participant playing the track he had been working on. in addition to the diversity and promise of the musical offerings, i was impressed by the general air of encouragement in the room and by the touching mix of pride, humility, and satisfaction each person showed. i especially like garfield’s admission that he is afraid people might laugh at his riddim and henzell’s professed dedication to “(h)ardcore reggae” or “pop reggae,” because “any other music comes second.” notice also how many inmates express an interest to learn more and an excitement about this first day of exploration. i too felt this excitement, and i hope i will be able to facilitate more learning and more creation soon. meantime, the guys have at least one or two computers to work on--and nothing but time. i have a feeling we will hear some pretty amazing stuff coming out of south camp over the next year. charlie and ben walker are hard at work on a radio pilot that we hope will drum up interest and support for the kind of program we would like to attempt there. of the various arguments one could make for such rehabilitation efforts, the inmates’ digital drumming could be the best of them all.

As a result of Wayne and Becca’s workshops in the prison, I discovered that a seed earlier planted in soil created by Reverence for Life had quietly taken root, and that a new leader, Kevin Wallen, had emerged to nurture the seed of hope planted by Prescod and Green.

Brief History of SET

Kevin WallenSET (Students Expressing Truth) Group started in early 1999, founded by two inmates at South Camp, and supported by Kevin Wallen, part owner of a computer store in Kingston. Wallen arranged and held a meeting with the general population in the institution’s Chapel, resulting in the organization of a formal group. In its infant stages, the SET group hoped to study as well as teach other. Their main focus was the building of each other’s confidence with the hope that they might change the culture of the prison. Kevin began talks with the inmates twice each week. They were encouraged to read and communicate openly. Realizing that the inmates were eager for more opportunities, Kevin donated one computer to the prison. Shortly after, the group was given the clearance to refurbish the prison’s library, which then became SET’s meeting place.

In its initial stages each member was allowed an hour each day on the computer. However, the reaction was so great that an initiative was taken to add another five computers. SET members became very competent with a number of applications. It was decided to create classes in various subject areas. Mathematics, English, History, Sociology, Science, among others are now a part of the groups’ development. In the beginning, it was difficult to get teachers in to teach the men. However, Wallen soon found that it was best to teach the inmates how to teach themselves. With the help of interactive multimedia learning CD’s and the fact that there are some extremely intelligent people behind bars, SET progressed. At present the group boasts approximately fifty members at South Camp and 45 members at Fort Augusta (the women’s prison). SET has recently built a Lab at Tower Street General Penitentiary. This Prison houses over 1700 inmates in dire need of the various opportunities that SET offers. This lab was opened in February 2005.

SET classes are open to all inmates. On any given week there can be an upwards of 75-80 persons participating. The group gets involved with a variety of projects with the aim of motivating and including the entire prison population. Specialty courses such as Landscaping, Sound and Video Editing are also offered at the SET Lab. The intention is not only to teach the members of the groups but the entire prison population.

Currently SET has a Welfare Program to assist inmates who are in need. SET also organizes beautification projects, sports day festivities, leadership workshops, a spelling “B” competition, a quiz competition.

SET has a most important spiritual element. Each Sunday at 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. a meeting is held. These meetings are used as opportunity for discussions on a variety of subjects. However, the one thing that always seem to come out of meetings is the fact that as individuals we are all first responsible for our selves and then for each other. Group members are encouraged to spend a great deal of time looking at themselves from a holistic point of view. We often remind each other that man’s greatest struggles begin on the inside and not out, therefore, one needs seek the truth of himself, and not only speak it but express it as well.

Richard ReeseA new Commissioner, Major Richard Reese has now undertaken to support and extend the SET program. Like Prescod, a military man and a believer in inmate rehabilitation, but unlike Prescod, a man of great management skill and political sensitivity. Spurred by a crisis caused by an escape attempt that resulted in the killing of a guard, Major Reese resolved to vitalize the SET program and expand it to include staff as well as inmates.

Tower Street and St Catherine inmates to benefit from computer training

published: April 25, 2005 in the Jamaica Gleaner

THE DEPARTMENT of Corrections has partnered with One Stop Computer Shop to expand its Students Expressing Truth (SET) computer programme to inmates at the Tower Street and St. Catherine Adult Correctional Centres.

Under the agreement, computer laboratories will be established at the correctional facilities, and inmates will be provided with access to computer courses in a variety of disciplines, ranging from video editing to architecture.

The Department of Corrections’ partnership with One Stop Computer Shop dates back to June 2002, when the company’s managing director, Kevin Wallen, who is a volunteer at the South Camp Adult Correctional Centre, assisted in the establishment of the SET programme, to provide technology training for the male inmates at that facility.


The initiative was aimed at bolstering the employability of incarcerated men once they have been released.

More than two years later, the programme has been deemed a qualified success, with more than 80 inmates having participated in the project, and acquiring useful skills.

Addressing a media briefing at his King Street offices recently Commissioner of Corrections Major Richard Reese explained that the foiled prison break at the Tower Street Correctional Centre last month, in part, influenced the decision to expand training to the island’s two other male prisons.

“We have done some reflection and I think it is widely accepted that there is a need to engage the staff and inmates of our institutions in a very meaningful way,” Major Reese said, further noting that given the computer training programme’s success at South Camp, its introduction into other prisons was seen as a favourable move. “We see it necessary to expand that programme as yet another vehicle for rehabilitation and engagement,” he added.


Meanwhile, Mr. Wallen explained that Richard Bucknor and Robert James, two inmates at the South Camp facility, had originated the idea for the SET programme.

He said the inmates decided that “they wanted to get some studying done, so we did an assessment on the guys that were interested and found that out of the 10 at the time that showed some interest, eight of them were pretty illiterate to the point where they could not read or write, and the other two were barely literate.”

Mr. Wallen said that he initially brought in newspapers for the men to read, and subsequently introduced interactive computer programming to improve their reading ability.

“The programmes that we had were very simple and interactive that they would tell them when they got something wrong and if they wanted to know how to spell it (a word), they could just click a button and it would tell them ... we used that and saw where some of the guys went from not being able to read anything at all, to where they are taking part in quiz competitions and spelling bee competitions,” he pointed out.

Not content to teach the inmates only software programmes, such as Microsoft Word, he said, “We thought we should teach them some different types of software, rather than just read and type ... teach them how to use programmes like Autocad, how they can build houses ... and video editing ...”

In addition to the SET pro-gramme, the Department of Corrections will also be undertaking other initiatives to foster improved relations between the inmates and the staff of the prisons.

Major Reese said these initiatives would include, a study on the justice process that would involve the Norman Manley Law School and court users; a study on trust; and a partnership with the United Nations Development Programme?s (UNDP) Vision 21 Project and the community radio station, ROOTS FM, to have broad-based societal civic dialogue on ways to have a safer, less violence-prone country.

Charles Neeson, Professor of Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School, will be lending assistance to the SET programme as well as the study on the justice process.

Where are we now? We have a strategy, different from before, less naive, better grounded. I will lay it out for you at iLaw Cambridge, June 24, 2005 and will welcome your critique.