edge

Set Free by Prisoners

Photographs by Mark Lyndersay

Picture courtesy Mark LyndersayMy name is Debbie Jacob and BC Pires insists I am his Person of the Year, 2020, because, he says, my prison work has done so much practical good for so many who need it so much.

I can’t sleep if I start thinking about how easy it is to end up in prison in this country. And then spending ten to 12 years waiting for your trial.That terrifies me.

In prison, I experienced gratitude, loyalty and love on a level I did not know existed, just from simple kindness. And a willingness to overcome the prejudice that define us on both sides of the tracks.

When I first came to Trinidad in 1983, I stayed in a small, white board house in the middle of a Warrenville cane field. For me, Central Trinidad is home. The rustling cane fields remind me of the wind in the wheat fields around the farm I was born and raised on in Ohio, USA, where weeks could pass before we saw a stranger’s car.

My daughter, Ijanaya, is a librarian in Belgium, and my son Jairzhino, an artist in Seattle. Zino came to visit me in February and got trapped here when the borders shut. My dad, Paul Bowman, died at 67. My mom, Maria, 91, has covid-19. My oldest brother, Marvin Paul, died of Aids. My two other brothers are Mark and Kevin. BC Pires tells me he’s spent 30 years thinking I was Jewish, because of my surname – but I got that from an Indian in Trinidad I divorced.

My anthropology degree from Ohio State defined my life and work. I also have a master's in international education and a library science certificate.

I read Miguel Street in Mountain View, California and wanted to experience this place VS Naipaul had described. I felt an immediate connection to Central. The Indian culture of Warrenville reminded me of my postgraduate work in India. I wrote a Trinidad Express feature series that French-born Dani Jeffrey turned into Sugarcane Arrows, one of the pioneering television drama series of Trinidad and Tobago.

I was raised Presbyterian and I don't know exactly why. My father rarely went to church because he said too many people did wrong during the week then sat in church on Sunday. My mother tried many different churches. My experience with religion has always been fluid and crossing boundaries, more spiritual than religious.

When you give to those less fortunate, you come as close to experiencing God as you can. It’s a plane of existence that can't be explained, only experienced in the act of giving.

I read mostly uplifting nonfiction: biography, history, journalism, essays; what prison inmates call, "books that make you a better person." The one and only perfect Picture courtesy Mark Lyndersaybook I have ever read, is The Boys in the Boat. It’s Daniel James Brown’s amazing story of the 1936 Berlin Olympics where nine poor, young men found acceptance and fame through working together as one on the American rowing team.

My favourite writers are American Ernest Hemingway, Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jamaican Roger Mais because their writing is full of surprises. No one can write a stark, clear, creative "true" sentence like Ernest Hemingway. No one can evoke culture and magical realism like Garcia Marquez. And no one can layer meaning in a story like Mais.

My favourite movie, Tangerines, is about an Estonian man who rescues two men from opposing sides during the 1990 war in Georgia. I showed it in Port of Spain Prison and the guys said it was one of the best movies they ever saw.

My phone alarm is my favourite song, It's Only a Paper Moon, sung by Ella Fitzgerald. It was the first song my dad heard after building his own radio as part of his Army Air Corps training during WWII. My dad taught me to love all music by playing records in the evening. His choices wove emotions together through jazz, pop, R & B. Every time my alarm goes off, I think of my amazing, kind, gentle, perfect dad.

As a journalist, I wrote about calypso because my dad had grounded us in music with his deejay sessions since I was four. I wrote features about musicians because the anthropologist in me [requires me] to understand the people around me. My dad died during Carnival 1992. My mom said, "Come in the summer when I will have no one around me." So I spent Carnival Monday and Tuesday walking the streets of Port of Spain with Super Blue, a fitting homage to my dad, who taught us that [music,] the land and animals nurture our souls.

I experienced perfect weekends for about four years, when I spent every Saturday and Sunday visiting and playing with retired police dogs in Caroni's Police Canine section. Ijanaya and I sat on the grass for hours of perfect peace, undisturbed by the world and untouched by the sadness and stress of my prison work. I learned how to face every emotion through those amazing dogs. I could not have survived without them.

My [anthropological instinct] led me to prison work. My home and family was targeted so much by crime, I felt I had to understand these people. My friend Gwen Pope, told me the [juvenile detention] Youth Training Centre needed an English teacher [so persistently that] I spoke to prison officer Donna McDonald. I spent every Saturday night and Sunday afternoon for five years teaching English and Caribbean history in YTC.

Ironically, curiosity and prejudice created a closeness between the teenagers in my English class and me. I wanted to understand their lives so I could understand and confront crime and not be a victim of it any more. I had my preconceived notions of juvenile delinquents. The teenagers were curious about this white person who came to YTC to do something other than preach religion. By confronting our [separate] prejudices [together], we developed trust and love.

Nowhere but prison have I ever felt that anyone truly shared the depths of my feelings about reading as escape, entertainment and salvation. I followed some of those teenagers to Port of Spain Prison to teach them while they waited for their trials.

I introduced prison debates and skill-based programmes for inmates to develop their communication skills and confidence. No one had ever given them that foundation. My inter-station debates let this country see how articulate and bright representatives of society that we have marginalised are.

Prison work was too emotional and confrontational, in your heart and soul, to ever become easier. It is rewarding and necessary work, but it is difficult and gut-wrenching.

[Having the physical space at the prison] to be myself with the retired police dogs on [prison workdays] gave me balance. Only the inmates know how much that time with the dogs meant for me. I'm sure they have no love lost for police dogs, but they encouraged me to tell stories about the dogs because they knew it brought me joy. Men we think of as the hardest and most heartless creatures could share my joy.

Picture courtesy Mark LyndersayMy first CXC English class in YTC was my life’s most difficult experience – and one of its most rewarding. It ended up in the book Wishing for Wings. I thrive on irony, it seems: teenagers imprisoned for violent armed robbery and murder have inspired [so many others to do] so much work in our prisons.

With the financial backing of Children's Ark, it was deeply rewarding to tear down the old Death Row cells to create the Port of Spain Prison library. A space where inmates could read to their children [on visiting days]. We literally turned darkness into light.

My police dog work, so dear to my heart, has remained invisible, which is fine for me – but I would like to do more for the dogs. I have gone through the police dogs' files, which start in 1952, and interviewed officers to write a history of the police dogs. The stories are amazing. I feel so proud to give those dogs a voice. I'm working towards having the dogs retire [just like any other] police officers directly under the commissioner. I got grants from the US Embassy to refurbish the canine unit in Chaguaramas.

I love good, dark chocolate, but if I could eat only one food for the rest of my life, hands down, it would be oatmeal. I could eat comforting, earthy oatmeal three times a day. It is a blank slate demanding creativity. Sometimes I make granola with curry powder.

I am happiest in a corner of my home-office, writing a book, with my dog Rambo snoring at my side. I love the feeling of being lost in time.

I can’t sleep if I start thinking about how easy it is to end up in prison in this country. And then spending ten to 12 years waiting for your trial.That terrifies me.

A Trini is a character more joyful, complicated and emotional than any character you could ever meet in a book. Unless it's V.S.Naipaul's Miguel Street.

To me, Trinidad & Tobago means home. In the last 37 years, the only place I have ever found in the US where I thought I could live was Nashville. I love the history, the energy and the music. But I know I could never live there. My heart and soul is here.


Set Free by Prisoners

Photographs by Mark Lyndersay

Picture courtesy Mark LyndersayMy name is Debbie Jacob and BC Pires insists I am his Person of the Year, 2020, because, he says, my prison work has done so much practical good for so many who need it so much.

I can’t sleep if I start thinking about how easy it is to end up in prison in this country. And then spending ten to 12 years waiting for your trial.That terrifies me.

In prison, I experienced gratitude, loyalty and love on a level I did not know existed, just from simple kindness. And a willingness to overcome the prejudice that define us on both sides of the tracks.

When I first came to Trinidad in 1983, I stayed in a small, white board house in the middle of a Warrenville cane field. For me, Central Trinidad is home. The rustling cane fields remind me of the wind in the wheat fields around the farm I was born and raised on in Ohio, USA, where weeks could pass before we saw a stranger’s car.

My daughter, Ijanaya, is a librarian in Belgium, and my son Jairzhino, an artist in Seattle. Zino came to visit me in February and got trapped here when the borders shut. My dad, Paul Bowman, died at 67. My mom, Maria, 91, has covid-19. My oldest brother, Marvin Paul, died of Aids. My two other brothers are Mark and Kevin. BC Pires tells me he’s spent 30 years thinking I was Jewish, because of my surname – but I got that from an Indian in Trinidad I divorced.

My anthropology degree from Ohio State defined my life and work. I also have a master's in international education and a library science certificate.

I read Miguel Street in Mountain View, California and wanted to experience this place VS Naipaul had described. I felt an immediate connection to Central. The Indian culture of Warrenville reminded me of my postgraduate work in India. I wrote a Trinidad Express feature series that French-born Dani Jeffrey turned into Sugarcane Arrows, one of the pioneering television drama series of Trinidad and Tobago.

I was raised Presbyterian and I don't know exactly why. My father rarely went to church because he said too many people did wrong during the week then sat in church on Sunday. My mother tried many different churches. My experience with religion has always been fluid and crossing boundaries, more spiritual than religious.

When you give to those less fortunate, you come as close to experiencing God as you can. It’s a plane of existence that can't be explained, only experienced in the act of giving.

I read mostly uplifting nonfiction: biography, history, journalism, essays; what prison inmates call, "books that make you a better person." The one and only perfect Picture courtesy Mark Lyndersaybook I have ever read, is The Boys in the Boat. It’s Daniel James Brown’s amazing story of the 1936 Berlin Olympics where nine poor, young men found acceptance and fame through working together as one on the American rowing team.

My favourite writers are American Ernest Hemingway, Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jamaican Roger Mais because their writing is full of surprises. No one can write a stark, clear, creative "true" sentence like Ernest Hemingway. No one can evoke culture and magical realism like Garcia Marquez. And no one can layer meaning in a story like Mais.

My favourite movie, Tangerines, is about an Estonian man who rescues two men from opposing sides during the 1990 war in Georgia. I showed it in Port of Spain Prison and the guys said it was one of the best movies they ever saw.

My phone alarm is my favourite song, It's Only a Paper Moon, sung by Ella Fitzgerald. It was the first song my dad heard after building his own radio as part of his Army Air Corps training during WWII. My dad taught me to love all music by playing records in the evening. His choices wove emotions together through jazz, pop, R & B. Every time my alarm goes off, I think of my amazing, kind, gentle, perfect dad.

As a journalist, I wrote about calypso because my dad had grounded us in music with his deejay sessions since I was four. I wrote features about musicians because the anthropologist in me [requires me] to understand the people around me. My dad died during Carnival 1992. My mom said, "Come in the summer when I will have no one around me." So I spent Carnival Monday and Tuesday walking the streets of Port of Spain with Super Blue, a fitting homage to my dad, who taught us that [music,] the land and animals nurture our souls.

I experienced perfect weekends for about four years, when I spent every Saturday and Sunday visiting and playing with retired police dogs in Caroni's Police Canine section. Ijanaya and I sat on the grass for hours of perfect peace, undisturbed by the world and untouched by the sadness and stress of my prison work. I learned how to face every emotion through those amazing dogs. I could not have survived without them.

My [anthropological instinct] led me to prison work. My home and family was targeted so much by crime, I felt I had to understand these people. My friend Gwen Pope, told me the [juvenile detention] Youth Training Centre needed an English teacher [so persistently that] I spoke to prison officer Donna McDonald. I spent every Saturday night and Sunday afternoon for five years teaching English and Caribbean history in YTC.

Ironically, curiosity and prejudice created a closeness between the teenagers in my English class and me. I wanted to understand their lives so I could understand and confront crime and not be a victim of it any more. I had my preconceived notions of juvenile delinquents. The teenagers were curious about this white person who came to YTC to do something other than preach religion. By confronting our [separate] prejudices [together], we developed trust and love.

Nowhere but prison have I ever felt that anyone truly shared the depths of my feelings about reading as escape, entertainment and salvation. I followed some of those teenagers to Port of Spain Prison to teach them while they waited for their trials.

I introduced prison debates and skill-based programmes for inmates to develop their communication skills and confidence. No one had ever given them that foundation. My inter-station debates let this country see how articulate and bright representatives of society that we have marginalised are.

Prison work was too emotional and confrontational, in your heart and soul, to ever become easier. It is rewarding and necessary work, but it is difficult and gut-wrenching.

[Having the physical space at the prison] to be myself with the retired police dogs on [prison workdays] gave me balance. Only the inmates know how much that time with the dogs meant for me. I'm sure they have no love lost for police dogs, but they encouraged me to tell stories about the dogs because they knew it brought me joy. Men we think of as the hardest and most heartless creatures could share my joy.

Picture courtesy Mark LyndersayMy first CXC English class in YTC was my life’s most difficult experience – and one of its most rewarding. It ended up in the book Wishing for Wings. I thrive on irony, it seems: teenagers imprisoned for violent armed robbery and murder have inspired [so many others to do] so much work in our prisons.

With the financial backing of Children's Ark, it was deeply rewarding to tear down the old Death Row cells to create the Port of Spain Prison library. A space where inmates could read to their children [on visiting days]. We literally turned darkness into light.

My police dog work, so dear to my heart, has remained invisible, which is fine for me – but I would like to do more for the dogs. I have gone through the police dogs' files, which start in 1952, and interviewed officers to write a history of the police dogs. The stories are amazing. I feel so proud to give those dogs a voice. I'm working towards having the dogs retire [just like any other] police officers directly under the commissioner. I got grants from the US Embassy to refurbish the canine unit in Chaguaramas.

I love good, dark chocolate, but if I could eat only one food for the rest of my life, hands down, it would be oatmeal. I could eat comforting, earthy oatmeal three times a day. It is a blank slate demanding creativity. Sometimes I make granola with curry powder.

I am happiest in a corner of my home-office, writing a book, with my dog Rambo snoring at my side. I love the feeling of being lost in time.

I can’t sleep if I start thinking about how easy it is to end up in prison in this country. And then spending ten to 12 years waiting for your trial.That terrifies me.

A Trini is a character more joyful, complicated and emotional than any character you could ever meet in a book. Unless it's V.S.Naipaul's Miguel Street.

To me, Trinidad & Tobago means home. In the last 37 years, the only place I have ever found in the US where I thought I could live was Nashville. I love the history, the energy and the music. But I know I could never live there. My heart and soul is here.