Why Caged Birds Sing
As an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the founder of the Prison-To-College Pipeline Program, Dr. Baz Dreisinger is embedded in the front lines of America’s penal education system. In this exclusive excerpt from her forthcoming book Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World, Dreisinger recounts visiting Jamaica’s infamous General Penitentiary in Kingston and experiencing first-hand the equally harrowing and heartbreaking impact of the use of music—the country’s artistic pride—as rehabilitation.
I’m having lunch on the sand at Hellshire Beach just outside Kingston, Jamaica, and talking two subjects the Caribbean island knows all too well—for better and for worse: music and prison. "It’s become quite official now—there’s European money behind it," Jamaican activist and educator Kevin Wallen says of the local Rehabilitation Through Music program. Touted as rehabilitative in prisons from the United Kingdom to India, music behind bars also has a storied American legacy that includes slave songs, prison blues, and the iconic Angola Prison, where folk legend Lead Belly honed his art. Wallen is filling me in on the Jamaican chapter of this legacy, which is the program I’ve flown here to witness.
In 1997, he and Harvard professor Charles Nesson began building programs inside a Jamaican prison. They established a library, computer lab, radio station, and music studio. This last one generated international headlines, as it produced Jah Cure, the reggae artist I’d never gotten permission to interview in prison, years ago. Now I’d finally been cleared to visit the prison where he’d recorded some of my favorite love songs, to learn about the program that made him a star. Organizing my access is Carla, an effervescent Italian, who took over the program from Kevin several years ago.
The next day a taxi carries me from New Kingston, where skyscrapers and strip mall–like boulevards evoke Anycity, USA, to the less tourist-friendly face of Jamaica’s capital, ramshackle downtown. Kingston is divided into uptown and downtown, a demarcation that refers as much to class as to geography. In this car-friendly sprawl, the wealth gap is baldly visible, and gang-related violence, which has plagued Kingston’s "garrison" communities, or politically aligned ghettos, since the 1970s, means that for the past decade Jamaica has had one of the world’s highest murder rates. The island of 2.7 million people has seen a thousand-plus killings every year since 2004, and the conviction rate for homicides is 5 percent. Unsurprisingly, nearly half of all prisoners here are serving time for nonviolent offenses. According to a study conducted in 2012 by the Jamaica Constabulary Force, the "typical inmate" is under age thirty-four and faces his first arrest before age twenty-four for breaches of the firearms act, which generally adds up to not paying the registration fee for a gun.
"To GP," I tell the driver. General Penitentiary. "Ever been there?"
"Yuh mad or wha?" he replies in Patois.
From across the street, I ogle the fortresslike prison, Jamaica’s largest: some 1,700 men live in a facility designed for 650. Bloodred brick and concrete, with a graceful sentry box and twenty-foot-high walls, it’s touted by a government web site as an example of "exquisite Jamaican Georgian architecture." The structure dates back to 1845, seven years after the full abolition of slavery in Jamaica, but it was not the only form of punishment used here. The 1865 Corporal Punishment Act, better known as the whipping bill, made larceny punishable by up to fifty lashes, while the Penal Servitude Act, a precursor to America’s convict lease system, rented out predominantly black, formerly enslaved prisoners to employers at a price per head. John Daughtry, Jamaica’s general inspector of prisons between 1841 and 1861, modeled GP after Philadelphia’s Eastern Penitentiary. In 1985, when the Rehabilitation Offenders Bill and the Corrections Acts revised "prisoner" to "inmate" and "prison officer" to "corrections officer," the place was rechristened the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre. GP, though, stuck.
"Me like your eyes," a young man with scattered yellow teeth tells me as I wait for Carla in the parking lot. He’s here to collect his brother, who will be coming home after seventeen years. Because he hasn’t been notified about his brother’s time of release, he’s been here since sunrise. He tells me prisoners are permitted two face-to-face visits a month, but relatives can drop off food and supplies every Wednesday. Today their first stop will be a doctor’s office, where his brother will be thoroughly examined and fed cleansing tea.
"Me live inna Jamaica now but used to be inna Brooklyn," the young man says, adjusting his Yankee cap.
"Otisville?" I ask, referring to the New York prison where I teach. It’s part guess, part read-between-the-lines.
He nods. "Six years, all over. You name it. Otisville? Elmira? Riker’s was worst, yuh see me? So much fighting. But still, America is Club Med next to this place. Seen?" He cocks his head to the side.
Carla arrives, salt-and-pepper dreadlocks tied like a rope down her back. She’s all business, giving me a curt wave and marching with determination to the gate.
"Come, come, we’re late," she calls to me. "Let’s move."
"Find out when my brother comes out, seen?" scattered-teeth cries as I follow Carla.
A copy of my passport is affixed to the concrete wall at the guard station, just below the dress code. My phone is deposited in an enormous safe, atop a mountain of Nokias. The officer checking me in produces a ruler and, in perfect cursive, imprints my name in a giant sign-in book.
Through metal detectors that beep wildly we make our way outside to a courtyard area where khaki uniforms hang on clothes- lines, flapping in the breeze. A sign on the fence reads Thank You Lord for Another Day.
Prisoners holler at me from every angle.
Me like you!
Me waan talk to you!
It’s a first, these catcalls in prison. Universally, the prison interloper is stared at, occasionally waved to, but she always half-exists in this land of the buried alive. In GP I am decidedly present. It’s unnerving, landing me in the heart of this hell in a far more immediate way than I’ve ever experienced before—there’s simply no looking away. Chaos bubbles to the surface like oil from a curry pot. Prisoners here are resurrected from confinement for only four and a half hours a day, and during those hours they are, clearly, very much trying to live. Din is indomitable; everything and everyone is on display. The place is essentially a massive football field encircled by minuscule, medieval-looking cells.
Carla’s assistant, George, whom I’d later meet in her office, would detail his three years inside those cells.
"It was quite a revelation to me, to say the least," he declared. "Three to five people in one tiny, tiny space. There is no toilet; you must urinate in a water bottle. If you have to defecate it can be a real problem. You notify cellmates that you have to do so and you use a newspaper. But only if you’re a badman or recognized inmate are you given that privilege; otherwise, they will tell you to hold it inside until you are let out of the cell. This results in many prisoners defecating on themselves or becoming ill.
"On the cell floor is room enough for two, so the other persons build a hammock. ‘It’s gonna cost you,’ the tailor told me when I arrived. Without a hammock, see, you stand to sleep. Mind you, you cannot lie down beside a man—Jamaica is a very homophobic society." This is an understatement. In 1997 comments made by the commissioner of corrections about condoms for prisoners led to a guard strike and prison rioting, during which sixteen people were killed. The commissioner resigned. Separate sections were created for prisoners labeled as gay. A culture of fear paralyzed HIV-prevention efforts behind bars.
"Sometimes men will stand up night after night, until they reach family who can help," George recalled. "And yes, I did witness many stabbings, sometimes for a simple thing like stepping on someone’s toes."
The soccer ball whooshes through the air, and Carla greets the prisoners in their khaki uniforms as they rush up to us. The guards try to silence the prisoners’ calls while they usher us to a concrete cottage off to the side of the cells, and the door slams shut behind us.
We enter GP’s version of the Luzira library: a computer lab. About twenty-two men spend four hours a day here, five days a week. They cease typing to smile at me; some look no older than sixteen. "Education Is the Way to the Future" reads one poster on the bright green wall.
"Come, let me show you something," Carla says. She opens a small door off to the side and voilà! It’s a closet—no, a radio station: Free 88.9 FM. At the mike, surrounded by posters of Gregory Isaacs, Michael Bolton, Shaggy, and Kenny Rogers, is Serano, one of the musicians featured in Songs of Redemption, a recent documentary about the music program. He reminds me of Wilson, an uncanny combination of old man and little boy: tiny in stature, his dreadlocks tied up under a peach-colored bandana and Yankee cap, he sports crisp white Nike Air Force Ones and a shimmering watch that seems twice his size. Twice, even, the size of his out-sized smile, which saturates the room.
"I’m a fan," I tell him. Indeed, when I watched the film his voice mystified me. Like Jah Cure’s, every note wrings out soulful pain. "See, my people," he says into the mike, "we’re here talking about The Secret—and suddenly I-and-I am an example of how this manifests, seen? I-and-I want to reach people with my music and here, this lovely lady appears right before me. Will it to happen, my people!"
He segues into the sound track from the film. We make small talk, but I’m distracted by the reggae music, parachuting my spirit out of this dead zone. It’s just the opposite of what Daughtry, who designed GP, would have wanted. "No sounds but of the hammer, the axe or the saw," he wrote in an 1844 report envisioning Jamaica’s first modern prison.
Carla leads me to the neighboring "cultural center," another concrete hut next door to the computer room. I stand before a stage decorated with a mural of Bob Marley and contemporary reggae songstress Queen Ifrica. Massive speaker boxes hulk in the room, guitars hang on the walls, and a man plays the bongos. Prisoners in the music program record and release songs, and Carla had earlier told me that she is vigilant about getting them royalties, but the Jamaican music industry is a vexed, complex beast. Who actually profits remains consistently vague, and hand-to-mouth economics prevails.
An officer takes me into the recording studio off to the side of the stage, where an old Vibe magazine rests on the mixing board.
"We want to build it much bigger," he explains. "I am a musician, too. I am all in favor of this rehabilitation. Love working with the inmates."
On the way out, we pass the school area—"Almost-sorta high-school level," the officer tells me. Colonial-style rules and regulations hang on the door: No Sagging Pants, No Indecent Language, Maintain Proper Hygiene, Pants Must Be Worn at Waist. Just before Carla leads me to freedom, a final sign catches my eye. None Shall Escape, it reads.
A friend waits for me in the parking lot to drive me back to New Kingston. "So much trouble in the world," croons Bob Marley, from her car stereo. Singing along, I come to the depressing conclusion that music in prisons is the sweet sound of a salve. Because ultimately Jamaica’s prison music studio add up to a Band-Aid on an amputated limb. Only a tiny minority of prisoners is lucky enough to profit from them, and weighed against everything else that these incarcerated people suffer, their fundamental impact remains minuscule.
But isn’t some impact better than none? Band-Aids can’t cure but they can stop the bleeding. So it is with writing and music and other arts-behind-bars programs, as study after study has indicated. A 1983 one, for instance, revealed a 74 percent favorable parole outcome rate for prisoners who participated in a California arts-based education program. Youth who were part of a Diversion in Music Education program in South Africa had a 9 percent recidivism rate six months after participation, which dropped to zero percent after a year. A study of New York’s Rehabilitation Through the Arts program reported numerous positive impacts on participants, including a higher level of positive coping, declining anger levels, and fewer infractions; ultimately, participants were assessed as being more dependable, socially mature, and willing to sacrifice individual needs for the welfare of a group. Music educator Willem Van de Wall wrote extensively about the power of music behind bars to promote feelings of belonging and loyalty; Israeli music professor Laya Silber reported on an Israeli choir that helped female prisoners listen, form new bonds, and accept criticism.
Envisioning Serano’s outsized smile, I recall a scene in the film Songs of Redemption during which he delivers a breathtaking performance in the cultural center, then runs offstage amid rousing applause, locks himself in the studio booth and begins to sob irrepressibly. "It’s too much," he cries. "Jah knows...the music started to create a soul, being someone again, feeling like a person."
The arts are cathartic. Humanizing. But the arts are also beautiful. Prisons are not beautiful, whatever gorgeous music or prose might emerge from them. And at the end of the music or writing or art class, the instructor—me—gets to exit to freedom, reflecting on the wonderful class and brilliant, grateful, adoring students—the same students who, meanwhile, must return to the treacherous realities of their cell blocks. Isn’t it all a cruel tease, giving someone a taste of personhood again, but only for a few hours a week?
The problem exists on a grand scale, too, and this is the real catch-22 when it comes to prison arts. Band-Aids can make one forget that a nasty wound festers underneath; worse, they can make one pat oneself on the back for having taken care of the wound. Would it be better, maybe—especially in the dramatic prison hell Jamaica—to let the blood flow and have the gash on full display, so the root problem is addressed and true healing can begin? Because that root problem runs deep: thousands of poor people warehoused for small infractions or because they can’t afford a bribe; atrocious conditions that belie even utterance of the word "rehabilitation"; corrupt criminal justice systems and stultifying wealth gaps that produce poverty and crime.
From Jamaica and beyond, restorative arts programs in many ways are a mere Band-Aid —although it does represent the possibility of an alternative paradigm, capable of transforming justice from a retributive system to a restoration- and restitution-oriented one. And surely there’s room, in this brand new paradigm, for arts programs to work their healing magic. But they can’t stand alone.
I leave Jamaica immensely frustrated. Prison arts programs are certainly well-meaning efforts but they’re also crumbs tossed at a system starved for radical overhaul. They’re smoke screens, obstructing our view of the big picture, which is that when it comes to justice and safety and humane treatment, prisons simply don’t make sense. Big-picture change is not about tinkering with or enhancing what is, but conjuring up bold imaginings of what could be. For all that I love and believe in it, art can be an obstacle to such imaginings because of the very thing it does so well: dazzle us, and then distract us, with beauty.
Copyright ©2016 by Baz Dreisinger. Reprinted by permission of Other Press.