By Kaelanne Jordan
Earlier this month, the Raja Yoga Prison Ministry in collaboration with the Trinidad and Tobago Prison Service hosted its 10th annual Inmate Art Exhibition at Long Circular Mall, St James. The event is among the Prison Service’s initiatives designed to help offenders change the patterns of behaviour that led to criminal activity. Specifically, programmes like these provide various forms of therapy to address rehabilitative needs—such as criminal thinking and anger management—that, if left unaddressed, can increase the likelihood of recidivism.
Now, the Superintendent of Port of Spain Prison Charmaine Johnson has recognised the need for another tool as the basis for development, education and rehabilitation of clients, formerly referred to as inmates: music programmes.
She believes had her clients received a structured music system in school, as a form of expression, “they may not have been in here at all”.
Earlier this month, the music band of the Port of Spain prison—Outfit International received a cheque valued TT$70,000 from a women’s ministry of the Catholic Church.
Funds from the cheque will go towards acquiring musical equipment and clothing for its members.
Outfit International—reprogramming men
Outfit International was started “many years ago” by Prison Officer Mr Mccain, now retired. Since then the band has grown from “strength to strength” with a wide range of genres including Gospel, Soca, Calypso, Dancehall, Classical and East Indian music. The band has a drum set, keyboard, bass guitar, rhythm guitar, congas and recently two steel pans were donated.
The band is an incorporation of clients and prison officers: —three vocalists (clients), a keyboardist (client), guitarist and drummer (prison officers). Important to note, the band’s Musical Director since 2014 and prison officer David Lowe said that most clients except the keyboardist had no prior formal training in music.
Lowe stressed that the band promotes discipline and “discipline is two sided”.
“That discipline that what the prison requires and then discipline in terms of what is required as a musician…to keep that camaraderie in the band…to have that respect for one another…to assist with teaching new people new things in the band…,” he said.
The clients of the band are males charged with various offenses, some “more serious” than others and those once considered “notorious” in terms of behaviour.
Moreover, the band comprises a “good mix” of clients: youths, clients serving longer sentences and some who “come and go and come and go”, according to Johnson.
Some of the band members were persons who “could not even speak, could not even carry on a conversation”.
Lowe added, “They wouldn’t open up…Through music they found a voice, an avenue to express themselves.” Music, he said, made it easy for them to communicate. He observed clients’ tempers and “lashing out” became less.
One would recognise that no prior musical background would serve as a “challenge” for Lowe. However, he told Catholic News, that he likes the “impossible situations”, adding that it was “exciting”.
“That was a work in progress,” to get the band to gel,” he said, as in the beginning there was a lot of testosterone and egos “flying about”.
“So I would constantly remind them that we are a unit. And everybody in the band is important. Everybody has a purpose in the band and we need everybody in the band…So we want to continue that continuity so I want to know when the guys finish here, they understand how a band operates and a band is a family.”
Aside from the performing aspect, Lowe and Johnson highlighted the “human” aspect of the band.
He mentioned that one of the clients’ brother passed recently and another got news of the passing of his mother.
“I always create that atmosphere that we could talk and we can thrash out issues. So if you have an issue, I want to hear the issue. I don’t care what the issue is, I want to hear the issue….So from time to time, they have their up days and then they have the days when I come for them for rehearsal and I see the human aspect and I realise today is not a day for them to work.”
Johnson shared that one of the vocalists, when people hear his voice, they view him as a musician, rather than a criminal.
“They have this love …they put aside everything. It ain’t have no Rasta or no Muslim or no this or that. It’s all brothers singing…you have camaraderie where we don’t do the booing thing…it’s like an unsaid rule so you have that support…”
The band is now preparing for upcoming events later this month, an Emancipation inhouse show at the prison, a book ceremony for children at the Prisons’ Sport club and a Gospel concert in south. Rehearsals, Lowe said, require training until the sound is “right”.
Questioned on the sensitive nature of clients being engaged with members of the public, Johnson said that there are systems in place especially for high-risk males, as public safety is “paramount”.
Church makes a difference
Johnson said while the T&T prison service has many programmes—CXC, GCE, life skills courses (plumbing, electrical, tiling), to name a few, one of the major programmes missing is an after-care programme.
“What happens after you leave here? Who supports you out there? Who is looking after you? Who is making sure that you do what you’re supposed to do?” she questioned.
Johnson expressed deep pain on seeing firsthand, the high levels of recidivism.
She shared, “I don’t know if it’s a smell they get or what they get and they just right back here because they don’t have that aftercare programme. It’s a lot that we have to do. We just hold and to a great extent, treat. The treatment don’t go as far as we want to with all the clients….”
Johnson highlighted another important programme within the prisons—several religious programmes. The prison has Church services on Saturdays, Sundays and during the week. Approximately 25 clients were preparing for baptism at the time of this interview.
“And let me tell you, it makes a difference. Church in here makes a difference. Something happens when the right people come in and do Church,” she said.
Johnson thanked the Catholic community who has been a part of prison ministry every Wednesday for years. She observed that a lot of clients returned to their Catholic teachings and beliefs since.
“…these guys would come in and say I’m affiliated to this…You’re just using it as a way to get protection…but when they come in the prison and you ask them ‘What is your religion?’ they always tell you that religion that they were baptised in,” she said.
Lowe also highlighted a “nice contribution” from Archbishop Joseph Harris with speakers and microphones, a “substantial donation” from Archbishop Jason Gordon and from a women’s ministry.
To this end, Johnson expressed thanks to all Commissioner’s past and present and corporate T&T, various Churches and communities for partnering with the T&T Prison Service towards the drive for prison restoration.
Outfit International is need of some powered subwoofers and two cordless microphones.
If you are interested in donating musical equipment, you can contact the Commissioner of Prison’s Office or the respective prison indicating your interest. The prison is also in need of urgent refurbishing to the band room, to make the space more accommodating to its members.
Feature Image: Third from left: Prison Officer and Musical Director David Lowe, Archbishop Jason Gordon (centre) with Superintendent of Port of Spain prison Charmaine Johnson with members of Outfit International at Archbishop’s House during the cheque distribution ceremony.