BY INDI MCLYMONT all woman co-ordinator - Sunday, June 20, 2004
Robert James went to prison a bitter man. After all, he says, he wasn't even guilty of the illegal possession of firearm and shooting with intent charges on which he was convicted. And to add to his anger, he says the police never produced the gun he allegedly fired, accidentally hitting a patron at a stage show at which he performed. "They did not even swab my fingers or anything to see if I had just fired a gun," James tells the Sunday Observer.
That was five years ago.
Today, James, 34, is no longer the angry young man who spent the early portion
of his incarceration plotting vendetta killings of cops and politicians. He's
channelled that anger into a zeal to help rehabilitate persons still in prison,
while at the same time warning others of the horrors of jail.
"I spent four years and three months in prison. It was a wicked and terrible
experience," he says. "Mi wouldn't want even mi enemy to experience what mi
go through in prison. I would love other people to hear my opinion and not go down this road."
James, who has been on the outside now for just over a year, was actually sentenced to seven years, but was paroled after four-and-a-half years, based on his good behaviour and involvement in rehabilitation programmes.
"I spent a few months at the General Penitentiary (Tower Street Adult Correctional
Centre) first. Initially mi did a think fi form a gang - a vigilante group - we
would train and equip ourselves while we were in there and then just kill when we
come out," he explains.
"I met a guy in there name Muslim. He was very revolutionary and we would sit and plan di type a gun we would want to run di place when we got out."
But his plans were thwarted by a rehabilitation programme started in the prisons by Psychologist Desmond Green.
"Mr Green started teaching us about Reverence for Life. At first we were sceptical about his principles, as he tried to teach us about relaxation and deep breathing and so on," says James. "At first we did not grasp his ideas but later, when he brought in Kevin Wallen (a businessman) to give us motivational talks, we started responding to the programme."
Between Green and Wallen, the programme expanded to teaching inmates computer skills.
"We (Muslim and I) started questioning ourselves. We realised that it did not make sense blaming others for what had happened to us because we had played a role too. Eventually we scrapped the plan to form the gang and to kill off police and politicians," says James, an aspiring deejay who was born in Tivoli Gardens in Kingston.
He never knew his father - a gunman who was killed before his son was born. According to James, he was abandoned by his mother when he was three months old and was raised by his grandmother in Montego Bay and relatives in Jones Town, Kingston.
James believes that one of the biggest lessons he learnt from the Reverence For Life programme was that he had to take responsibility for the actions that landed him in prison.
"I was not the one who had the gun or fired it. But what happened was that I was hanging out with bad company," he admits. "I was with a couple friends at a stage show and while I performed they fired a gun salute for me. Afterwards, I was with them when they fired shots in support of other artistes. But one of the shots accidentally hit somebody. I was one of the first ones to offer help, and so him (the injured man) think that a me fire the shot. We carried him to hospital, but on the way the police stopped us."
James says that the gun that his friend had used was not licensed, and while the police did not find the weapon in the car, they were all arrested.
"But because the guy who got shot identified me as the one who did the shooting, they held on to me. I knew who did the shooting but I did not tell the police because I thought they would investigate and find out.
"But if mi did know that prison was this dangerous, then maybe I would have spoken the truth and not taken the rap for my friend. Then again, if I wasn't in bad company this would not have happened to me," says James, who has a 10-year-old daughter.
His newly acquired sense of accountability and responsibility eventually led him to start a group called Students Expressing Truth, which, with Wallen's help, teaches inmates to read and write, as well as basic computing skills.
"In my four years (in prison) I associated with many men who did a lot of crimes in the 1980s, and when you talk to them you realise that most of them can't even spell their names," says James, who attended both Ruseas and Vere Technical high schools before deciding to embark on a career as a deejay using the stage name Charlie Chemist.
"Most of the ghetto man that turn bad man don't have much education," he says, "and that is why we have to try and educate them while they are in there. Because if not, they are just going to come back out to a life of crime because they can't do anything else."
In the few hours when he was not locked in his cell, James and a few other inmates would sit under a tree in the yard where he taught them the alphabet.
"Kevin would carry in resources like the newspaper and we would use that to help di man dem learn fi spell dem name. Eventually, after the class started growing, Kevin brought in a computer and software with the alphabet so I could use that to take the pressure off," he says.
But when the programme started they had to deal with unco-operative warders who clearly didn't share their vision. "When we just start teach the inmates, the warders would run us in; dem seh that dem not supervising any prisoner outside learning anything because dem never go to training school for that. They said that they learnt to secure prisoners."
However, the programme continued to grow, and before James left the South Camp Adult Correctional facility in April 2003, a computer lab equipped with nine monitors and hard drives had been set up for the inmates.
"We would have classes from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. We would have nine inmates per hour. I was the librarian and lab technician," he says.
Since his release, James has been working with Wallen as a liaison person.
"Kevin started a concert called First Sundays Unchained, which happens monthly. He gets a few artistes to perform and after he pays them, whatever money is made goes towards acquiring computers for the prisons. So far, we have done four of the major prisons and want to go into some of the smaller ones."
"I am the PR person. I get the artistes and promote the event. I have also been asked by Mr Green to be the point person here for Reverence for Life," he says.
Green's Reverence for Life Programme has been studied by professors from Harvard and he was recently offered a fellowship to study there. Since his departure, the programme lapsed in the prisons, and during a recent visit here Green asked James to pick up where he had left off.
Now James is hoping that the programmes he is involved in can make a strong impact on the inmates before they are released.
"Next month we hope to start a programme where we would equip the inmates with tools - mechanical and otherwise - so that they can do something to occupy themselves when they come out," he explains. "After they are established, then they can give back something to the programme."
His determination to ensure that the programmes are sustained is driven by his intimate knowledge of the conditions inside the prisons - conditions which he is convinced can make men into monsters.
"Once you are in prison and experience it, you regret what you have done. You are forced to stay with several people in a very small place for long periods of time. You don't get to bathe as often as you wish. They say you should bathe once per week, but sometimes you are lucky if you can get water in a bottle to freshen up," he explains.
"People will kill you for nothing at all. The warders can't protect your life because they don't monitor some of the cells. So a man can stab you for stepping on his foot, and by the time the warder reach, yu dead.
"If you are bathing in a bucket and your bath water splash and catch a man he could say that you 'grounds' him and him could stab you for that. So you have to be very careful. I have seen more than 19 men killed during my four years for simple things like that."
Allegations of homosexuality, he says, can also get you killed. "They have a section for homosexuals called 'Boys Town'. But sometimes men can pull a fast one on you and you get sent over there - even if you are not gay. For example, if a man report that he saw you masturbating, then they could put you over there."
The harsh prison conditions combined with abandonment by family, James insists, often leads to many prisoners leaving the institutions as vengeful and hurt individuals.
"They don't have anything to do, and the devil find work for idle hands," he says. "Most a di crimes that happening on the road are arranged from inside the prisons."
James is intent on not returning there, and as such has plunged hard into his chosen career as a deejay.
"I don't want to go back there because it set me back big time. I would be big in my deejay career now," he laments. "When I went in, at that time Elephant Man and Lexus were not big yet, and all of us used to hang out at the same studios."
He says he has recorded eight tracks so far and wants to do two more to complete his album.
"My lyrics elevate the youths from the ghetto," he says. "Mi do uplifting tunes."