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Prison Diaries Show the Reality of Life Behind Bars in Jamaica

When thinking of Kingston, Jamaica, blogging and podcasting are far from the first words to come to mind. “Murder capital of the world”, sure. Bob Marley and reggae music, of course. But a cutting edge prison rehabilitation program, which teaches prisoners at a maximum security correctional institute how to blog, podcast, and even participate in Second Life?

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Photo of Tower Street Correctional Facility by Christina Xu

That is precisely what Students Expressing Truth (S.E.T.) has set out to accomplish with its new citizen media initiative, Prison Diaries. S.E.T. first began in 1999 when two former prisoners created the organization to provide more educational opportunities within the Jamaican prison system so that inmates would have more job opportunities upon release, and thus lessen the rates of recidivism.

Kevin Wallen, the current director of S.E.T. first became involved in the organization after reading an inspirational book by Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a former American middleweight boxer who was released from prison and pronounced not guilty after spending nearly 20 years behind bars. Wallen, then living in Canada, returned to his native Jamaica and took over the leadership of S.E.T. in June of 2000. Since Wallen's involvement in the program, over 100 prisoners have passed through the S.E.T. program and not a single one has returned to prison. That is a stark contrast to Jamaica's traditionally high rates of recidivism (50% in 1993).

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Photo of Tower Street computer lab by Christina Xu

Wallen has also done an impressive job of attracting international involvement to spread awareness about S.E.T. and motivate inmates. During the January 17, 2006 inauguration of a computer laboratory at Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre, Dr. Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter urged inmates to take advantage of the opportunity and learn computer skills to improve themselves. Wallen has also attracted the support of Harvard law professor Charles Nesson, who established the Jamaica Project at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society in 1998. Thanks to Wallen's influence, the Jamaica Project has recently focused heavily on rehabilitation and restorative justice in Jamaica. You can view a video of Wallen and Professor Nesson speaking about restorative justice in Jamaica on the Berkman website. Nesson remains heavily involved in the project. Two weeks ago he was in Jamaica, where he introduced the male prisoners of Tower Street Correctional Facility to Second Life and met with the female prisoners at Fort Augusta.

In the summer of 2007 the S.E.T. project was visited by Christina Xu, a Harvard student and media activist, who documented her experience (and managed to take photographs of the Tower Street computer lab) in two comprehensive posts. Xu has also advocated that S.E.T.'s relationship with the Berkman Center at Harvard University be made more explicit. Also during the summer of 2007 Wayne Marshall, an ethnomusicologist at Brandeis University and music producer with a strong interest in the Caribbean, led three audio production workshops at Tower Street, South Camp, and Fort Augusta correctional facilities. Larisa, an Oakland-based DJ and blogger, and Oliver Day, an internet researcher, also visited the three SET groups to help teach the inmates technical skills such as editing audio files with Audacity.

Today SET remains most active at Tower Street and Fort Augusta. As you can see in the video below, the SET group at Tower Street has been able to establish a stronger online presence because they currently have better computers than than the female participants at Fort Augusta. Every Wednesday the S.E.T group at Tower Street meets to discuss the issues affecting them. They also produce a one hour radio show beginning at 11:00 a.m. EST, which focuses on a particular topic. This week the inmates discussed the origins of anger and how it can be effectively controlled. Here is a two and a half minute excerpt from the program. You can tune into FreeFM radio, the group's 24 hour online radio station produced from within the prison, using iTunes or a similar audio program.

Last week, accompanied by Global Voices managing director, Georgia Popplewell, I was able to see the Prison Diaries project first-hand. My experience was not unlike that of Christina's – entering a maximum security prison can be a daunting process. However, once we reached SET's computer lab and were able to meet the participants first hand, I was immediately overcome by their kindness and dedication. Each of the participants introduced themselves and spoke a little about what SET has done for them. The time then came to go on air for the weekly radio program. During our visit, the group discussed issues of fatherhood. As it turns out, most of the inmates who are members of SET are also fathers. Fascinating insights were made about the expectations they had of their own fathers as children and the expectations they have set for themselves as fathers who are currently incarcerated.

At each Wednesday meeting the secretary of the group takes minutes of the agenda and the items that were discussed. Those minutes will now be posted each week on the Prison Diaries project blog. We will also do our best to post at least one podcast per month featuring excerpts from Free FM Radio.

Unfortunately, as you will see in the video below, we were not able to meet with the women prisoners at Fort Augusta, but you can follow some of the blog posts they have written on the Prison Diaries blog. Coming soon, all of these separate blogs will come together at prisondiaries.org. You can learn more about the Prison Diaries project by exploring around their website and reading through their press coverage.

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9 comments

  • Each time you hear or read from this project grants, you can expect a little of heroism and a lot of humanism. The S.E.T. community is doing a lot of both and now that we know more from them and the amazing work they ve done for these prisoners.
    They can be sure that they will be listened on their ways to freedom, these big brothers and sisters to the Rising Voices bloggers are going to teach us more than survival lessons, life lessons.

  • I am very impressed and inspired by the work the inmates and their tutors are doing. Congratulations to the author of the article for all the information he provides about an amazing educational experience.

  • Incredible project, so inspirational. Thanks to S.E.T. for making it happen.

  • I would love to see this kind of a project on a wider scale. Prison diaries makes me reflect a lot even if I stand outside the walls.

  • This is a fantastic outlet for these individuals to use their time and energies to make a positive impact, not only by educating the world ‘on the outside’ of the reality of life behind bars and its population, but also by expressing themselves in a raw and often cathartic manner. It affords us a humane look into a world that many of us know little about, but hold many assumptions on. Looking forward to the start of the blog.

  • We love the work you are doing, and appreciate the insights into the experiences of offenders in Jamaica. Given the ongoing crime problem, reform must be stressed. Through programs like this one, properly documented, perhaps we can even change minds in the United States about the potential for reform there as well. M.D.

  • […] – On the subject of people you’re probably not interacting with, David Sasaki, managing editor of Global Voices’s Rising Voices initiative, goes into a maximum security prison to visit his grantees, a group of Jamaicans learning to blog in prison. […]

  • […] si racconta che Prison Diaries mette a nudo la realt

  • […] They have a blog too, you can read more about the project here […]

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