Bocas Lit Fest

Machel Montano, Anya Ayoung Chee and Kees Dieffenthaller interact with prisoners at the event.

An indistinct scent marches throughout the Port of Spain Prison as we are led inside after being signed in, searched and approved by Prison officials. The eye of every visitor searches the compound, taking in every detail. The cream tall walls with the little barred windows with eyes peering through them are not an everyday sight.

“I expected something raunchier, like graffiti on the wall or something. It’s actually a lot more normal than I thought,” I overhear a neighbouring conversation as seats are taken and glances are tossed furtively from the visitors to where the incarcerated men sit at the back. Of course, she is right. For many of us, the most we’ve seen of prison is a couple episodes of Orange is the New Black or between the crooning of Jah Cure’s melodious voice in his video Reflections. However, this is real. This is Voices from Inside, T&T, an exploration of the prison system through the eyes of prisoners with readings by celebrities Machel Montano, Kees Dieffenthaller, Muhammad Muwakil and Anya Ayoung Chee, reading from Dr. Baz Dreisinger’s book Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons around the World. The event is livestreamed from the Bocas Lit Fest’s Facebook page.

Professor and justice worker Baz Dreisinger reads at Voices from Inside, T&T.

Before the programme begins, men clad in dark blue knee-length pants with matching shirts can be seen helping with the setting up of tables, carrying boxes, dishes and other items. They are also busy at work alongside the Prison officials to ensure that this event is a success.

“The different colours symbolize the time spent at the prison. The brown-clad men have spent less than six months, the blue have spent over six months and the white are men who are condemned to hang,” informed an officer attached to the Programmes department. Of course, hangings are not done in this country at this time. The men sit in rows: taciturn yet interested. A few can be seen speaking among themselves. For the most part, they sit and quietly observe the proceedings with hungry and inquisitive eyes. Later, when asked how the men respond to ventures such as these, the officer stated, “They love programmes, man. It’s an opportunity to learn and interact with the outside world, so they take full advantage of it.”

The overall energy felt is one of encouragement. This could be seen as the celebrities take the initiative to turn their chairs and break the invisible wall between the prisoners and themselves. They engage in light-hearted conversations with the men as we await the start of the programme. These conversations are very well received by the inmates as they listen attentively to the encouraging words of the artistes or return comments.

Light-hearted moments were had alongside the deep introspection at Voices from Inside, T&T.

The programme begins and proves to be just as thought provoking and moving as was expected. Inmates read their poetry: deep, emotion-filled poetry about their lives. These men perform their pieces with passion, claiming the stage as their own space. They shout their messages far and wide or calmly and purposefully rest their thoughts, dreams, failures and regrets on the minds of the audience and livestreamers. They are cheered on by other inmates. One motif travelling throughout all of the poems is freedom. One can hear clearly the yearning for freedom, the yearning to see ‘the light’, the yearning to be seen and the yearning for justice.

In the build-up to this event, Together WI posted some truly eye- opening facts on their Facebook page. The Port of Spain Prison was designed to hold 250 incarcerated persons and currently holds 652. The Remand Prison, designed to hold 655 incarcerated people, holds approximately 1,024 people. It was revealed that the prison is not fit for human habitation and some men have been forced to stand up and sleep. Frighteningly, 63% of the prison population has not even been convicted yet. They are awaiting trial and wait six to ten years to go to trial. Many questions come to mind. It is hoped that this event will open up deeper conversations which will lead to action that benefits all involved.

Blog by Ariel Matthews, Photos by Marlon James.

One of our inaugural NGC Bocas Lit Fest Youth Bloggers, Ariel Matthews is a 23 year old believer in the power of Literature to inspire, heal, entertain and educate. She attained a Bachelor of Education with specialization in English Language and Literature from the University of Trinidad and Tobago. She has hopes of travelling the world while teaching English. She blogs at A Life Lived.

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