Locked away in the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre in Kingston, a maximum security prison, for the past four years, Seth Rogers*, is not daunted by his imprisonment, but has been occupying his time productively by teaching his fellow inmates computer skills, and is also integrally involved in the prison’s radio station.
Mr. Rogers is President of the Students Expressing Truth (SET) programme, out of which a computer laboratory, recording studio and radio station were born. “The SET programme concentrates on rehabilitating the entire individual – your whole being. It has aspects which relate to the physical person, the mental person, and the spiritual well-being,” he explains in an interview with JIS News.
Mr. Rogers says he is pleased when he is able to motivate persons and add meaning to their lives, enabling them to look forward to each day.
He credits the establishment of the SET programme to the Managing Director of One Stop Computers Limited, Kevin Wallen, a volunteer at the Tower Street correctional facility. Mr. Wallen informs that the SET programme began in June 1999, at the South Camp Adult Correctional Centre, also known as the ‘Gun Court’.
He says his reason for starting the programme was because, “I went to the prison and saw that there was not a lot for them to do and I wanted to help.”
This businessman not only spearheaded the establishment of the computer laboratory at the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre, but helped to outfit it with computers, as well as through Harvard University, in the United States. Through this lab, inmates as well as staff involved in the SET programme, are provided with training in technical areas of production and broadcast for radio as well as essential techniques needed in music production for the recording studio.
“We have classes that deal with different aspects of the computer – we have introduction to computers, we deal with voice training, (audio) editing, and we deal with video editing also. That correlates with the radio station in terms of the voice and video editing.and learning to use the computer, because the radio station is run by using a computer, so all training ties hand in hand,” Mr. Rogers explains.
The SET programme also operates out of the Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre, where Mr. Wallen also volunteers. However, the Tower Street facility is the only institution from which the radio station is aired, but there are plans to roll out radio stations in other adult correctional facilities.
The community radio station, which was officially launched on June 22, 2007, was developed by the Department of Correctional Services and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), in collaboration with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), in order to enhance prisoner rehabilitation and education.
Mr. Rogers tells JIS News that Mr. Wallen is integrally involved in the programme, as every Wednesday, he participates in a live programme on the prison’s radio station called ‘SET Chat’, where issues relating to the outside world, as well as the inmates, are explored. “We discuss various topics and we give our views like a regular talk show out there on the radio station,” he notes.
Ironically, the station is called ‘Free FM’ and can be heard on the 88.9 frequency module. The ‘Free’ in the name, however, stands for – Fostering Rehabilitation, Education and Entertainment. It is also streamed live on the internet.
Mr. Rogers also has a programme called ‘Healing Time’, where he plays soul music, a little gospel, and some country and western. In between the music, he has inspirational and motivational talks.
The inmates and staff, particularly Correctional Officers, who are involved in SET, staff the radio station. The production and broadcasting of programmes are done primarily by those who have been trained by external and internal stakeholders. In addition, Correctional Officers are trained as trainers, who then teach inmates and wards about radio production.
Head of the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre in Kingston, Superintendent Leroy Fairweather, in consultation with an inmate.
Mr. Rogers notes that SET operates as a structured programme, with a President, two Vice Presidents and Directors responsible for various areas. “You are trained to operate as if you are in the working world,” he points out.
Approximately 30 persons are directly involved in the programme and about 250 indirectly. They are actively involved in operation of the radio station daily. He notes that the others involved are committee members who work on special projects, such as a sporting competition or a Spelling Bee competition, among other things.
He informs that the inmates directly involved in the programme report to the computer lab every morning, as soon as they are let out of their cells. Mr. Rogers informs that he and the radio station manager, are there from about 7:00 a.m. and remain until the lab closes at 4:00 p.m. or 5:00 p.m.
“Other inmates are not privy to be out of their cells that early in the morning, so they get there (computer lab) by about 9:30 a.m. or 10:00 a.m., and they are supposed to be there until about 2:30 p.m. or 3:00 p.m., when it’s lock down time,” he notes.
Commenting on how the SET programme has impacted his life, Mr. Rogers points out that “it gives me something to look forward to each and every day. Sometimes it doesn’t feel as if I am in prison… it’s only at 5:00 p.m. when I am through working, that I realise I am in prison.”
“I have a lot of activities to do, especially as the President. I have to co-ordinate a lot of things, so basically, I am up and about and around and have a lot of activities in between teaching classes. So, it helps to take my mind off the fact that I’m really here. It makes my sentence a bit stress free,” he says.
Currently serving a 10-year sentence, teaching comes naturally to this man who has been teaching for 17 years. “It gives me joy to be able to continue teaching. In that way, it makes me feel as if I am still out there in the society,” he notes. He taught Information Technology, Accounts and Mathematics.
The SET programme is not only limited to teaching classes, the radio programme, and the recording studio, but members have counselling sessions with other inmates. “Sometimes we have disciplinary problems, just like anywhere else, and we are the ones who deal with it. We just have one or two Officers who supervise us. They stay out of our affairs, they are only there for security purposes, unless it gets out of hand, then they come in,” he explains.
Lest one would think that it’s a ‘free-for-all’ programme, where persons enrol to ‘escape’ the rigours of prison life, this is far from it. He says that even though there is no criteria for membership, persons who express an interest have to go through a screening process.
“We try to find out what the person knows about the programme, what is really their interest, and what is their motivation for wanting to be in the programme. Even if we realise that they do have ulterior motives, we try to change their motives, because even though it is a selection process, we really try not to turn aside anyone,” the SET President says.
Mr. Rogers explains that the programme’s ultimate goal is to help change the individuals involved, so regardless of the person’s character, they are accepted.
“Once someone is admitted into the programme, we go through an interview process… we have to screen them properly and we put them on a probationary period, just like you would in an organisation, then if they pass that, they become a full fledged member,” he points out.
Mr. Rogers says he has seen marked improvement in almost everyone, especially in terms of discipline. “I have known persons from when I came here in 2005. I have seen persons who were very violent and you couldn’t really talk to them, and they would be quick to argue and fight and so on and would be in trouble with other people every now and then, but they have really calmed down,” he reflects.
He says that because other inmates have seen the changes, many are “clamouring to be in the programme right now, because of the change that they have seen in others.but we don’t really have the space for so many persons.”
This interest in the programme is not surprising, as Mr. Rogers notes that one of the perks of being in the programme is that participants are treated differently by authority and fellow inmates. “We are referred to as the elite of the inmates here. We are the envy of a lot of inmates, as we are looked up to and respected by inmates and officers,” he says.
The SET programme is an integral part of regular prison life, as throughout the year, members are called on to plan or host activities that take place within the prison.
The Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre also boasts other rehabilitative programmes. This includes an education programme, which facilitates inmates being able to sit their General Certificate of Education (GCE) and Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) examinations.
In addition, inmates make themselves busy in a welding shop. They also do plumbing, and farming.
Head of the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre, Superintendent Leroy Fairweather, tells JIS News that as many persons as possible are encouraged to enter into rehabilitative programmes. He notes that the prison boasts highly skilled individuals, skills which are utilised by the institution.
“When we talk about skills, we have a lot of skills here, because most of our repairs we do it ourselves – repair lighting fixtures, repair broken down pumps,” he says. There are also craftsmen, artists, masons, carpenters, and tailors. Mr. Fairweather notes proudly that all the staff’s uniforms are made by inmates. As an incentive, inmates are given a stipend for their work.
Evidence of just how talented inmates are, is seen on the walls of the Superintendent’s office, which are adorned with paintings. In addition, a former inmate tiled the floor of his office as well as the steps leading up to it.
“We try to have our people go out with a skill. We try to make them a better person than when they came here, that is our aim and objective, especially where literacy is concerned. We try to see that those who come in unable to read and write, that at least they can read when they leave the institution, especially the younger ones in the 18 to 21 age group,” he tells JIS News.
Mr. Fairweather says there is a public notion that inmates sit in prison doing nothing, “but what they need to do is to do something to assist with rehabilitation.” He notes that even though the institution receives help from UNESCO, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Food For the Poor and other organisations in the form of donations, including equipment, medicine, football and cricket gears, food stuff, clothing and appliances, additional help is needed.
The Superintendent tells JIS News that persons were not brought to the prison to be punished, but as punishment, therefore, “we can’t condemn anybody, because a man cannot reach so far that he cannot change.”
“I try to help everybody, I don’t see anybody as a ‘write off’. That is where I get my satisfaction, that is where I get my comfort, that is where I get my drive to go on – when I see somebody who society has condemned, you can clean him off, and send him out as a good, decent law-abiding citizen – I feel good,” he asserts.
Seth Rogers, seemingly a ‘condemned man,’ is on the road to rehabilitation, courtesy of such programmes at the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre. He is a willing participant in this mission of influencing change – positive change in the lives of fellow inmates, as well as his own – this spells hope.
Although he is basically ‘free’ to go about his daily activities within the facility, the fact remains that Mr. Rogers is still imprisoned, which is a reality he will be facing daily until his sentence is up, even though he hopes to get out on parole for good behaviour.
He has a message for Jamaican citizens, especially students. He advises them to stay focused, stay in school and get the most out of their education, “as that is the only way forward.” He urges students to use their spare time positively and get involved in clubs, churches and other organisations, doing something positive, instead of having idle time on their hands.
“Sometimes there are outside influences, but you have to be independent of others and keep yourself focused and know exactly what you want and work towards your goal. Do not be led by others to do things, because you want to feel accepted,” Mr. Rogers pleads.
* Name changed to protect identity.