In prison, it’s always the quiet inmates who capture my intention.
One of those inmates I’ll call Jay James because he doesn’t want to use his real name, I knew from my debate teams. He emerged as a confident and fair debater on a team of boisterous competitors who fought tooth and nail to keep their spots.
James, now 38, spent 17 years in prison. He was 20 when he was jointly charged with three others for murder. Like many inmates in my programmes, he willingly shares his story so that we can better understand crime.
“You might think this is the typical story when I say, ‘I didn’t do it. I was in the wrong place. I followed the wrong company.’ It’s hard to get people to believe that. Yes, people lie about not killing someone, but sometimes it’s true,” said James in the measured, mellow voice that made him a confident, star debater.
“Before I got arrested, I wasn’t a career criminal. I was now being exposed to the real world. At home, you’re sheltered.”
For James, home was a happy place in central Trinidad with both parents and an extended family.
“We were middle class – not a wealthy family, but we had what we needed. We were comfortable. I was indoors more than the typical boy. Yes, I climbed trees and rode bikes. I wasn’t wicked. I liked the togetherness and the cooking with friends. I didn’t distress people. My friends and I went to the river and caught crabs.”
James said he always tried to entertain his friends and reconcile any differences they had.
“I tried to make sure everyone was good. We weren’t violent, bad or looking for fights. We weren’t in any gangs. My childhood experience was good.”
James completed secondary school. A biking accident caused him to miss school so he only got three passes: English, principles of business (POB) and office administration.
“I wasn’t good at maths,” he said.
After secondary school, he took computer and accounting classes, did security jobs, worked in a factory and moved on to construction work.
Then came a relationship that changed his life.
"I met a girl, three years older and more experienced in life than me. She had a history. She was an escort, but I didn’t know that. She was on the streets from a young age. She said she was working in Petrotrin, and I believed her. She went to work every morning, but not in Petrotrin. She was exciting and into a party life.”
This girl encouraged James to stay with her on the weekends.
“Then it turned out to be staying more than the weekend. She always had money and wanted to lime. She posed topless in the Punch newspaper. I got to know this later. In prison, you piece together information about the crime you’re charged for because people in there often know the people you know.”
Before prison, James questioned nothing about this girl.
“Home recognised something was off with her. They would know, but I was young, stubborn and too inexperienced to realise red flags. I thought I might be in love, but it was more like infatuation.”
Eventually, he met the girl’s brother.
“He would become my charge partner [the person jointly charged with a crime]. He was into crime – robbing people and house break-ins, but I learned this later. At the time, I just looked at them as people who liked to enjoy themselves. I was in the moment.”
It turns out, she, her brother and their friend knew the victim of the crime James was charged with.
“I didn’t know him. I don’t know what falling out they had. They said they gave him some money to pay their rent, and he ran off with the money. They didn’t see him again until the crime.”
James’s life was speeding out of control.
“There was no time to think. They said we were going to visit her relatives. Me, the girl, her brother and a next man were there. The victim was the driver, She got him to go somewhere remote. He was strangled. I believe the police said he was stabbed, but I didn’t see the stabbing. I saw the strangling.”
Six weeks later, the police laid murder charges.
“Everyone was jointly charged because we were all there. The autopsy results were inconclusive. They didn’t find the body in time to determine the cause of death. The others wanted to plead guilty to get the bargain to get out of prison someday. The deceased family wanted justice and closure, and I don’t blame them.”
But James didn’t want to plead guilty to murder.
“The prosecutor told me, ‘If you don’t plead guilty, I will work my best to have you condemned.’ We ended up taking the deal for 30 years they offered. They took ⅓ off the sentence for pleading guilty. We got years taken off for time spent in remand and time for programmes we did.”
The girl was never charged, and it took 12 years for the case to go through the court system.
James served time in Golden Grove Remand Prison, Maximum Security Prison (MSP) and Golden Grove convict prison. He took CXC courses, played sports, stayed out of trouble and received three CXC passes in prison: human and social biology, maths and accounts. He is most proud of his time spent on the debate team and tutoring inmates.
“The debating brought out things in us we didn’t know. We got braver in speaking in front of crowds. It brought us out of our shells. I had never done it before. It was exciting. I realised debating is what parliamentarians do. The levels we reached in debates were amazing. When Minister Stuart Young made the remark we should come to parliament and debate we felt proud. This wasn’t a pastime. We took it to heart, and we took it seriously,” said James.
Tutoring also brought rewards.
“I liked developing my own techniques for teaching that proved successful. Inmates passed their exams under my tutoring. I taught CXC maths and then taught for the primary school leaving certificate.”
James’s goal was to come out of prison better than when he entered.
“But out here, you have a hard time being accepted in society,” he said. “It’s hard for people to forgive, but how do you want society to change if you don’t want to change who you are? You look at someone who made a mistake – or even someone who committed a crime intentionally but has changed himself – and you can’t offer forgiveness?” said James.
“When society turns its back, what is left for people to do? You can make changes in society by forgiving and allowing opportunities and jobs for people who went to prison and changed. All this talk about rehabilitation means nothing if we have no opportunities to use what we have learned after paying our debt to society.”
James said verbal and physical abuse by some prison officers causes problems.
“Inmates feel no one cares about them. They get bitter, lose hope and say, ‘I hope I don’t see him out there.’”
He said police investigations need to be more thorough, and the judicial system needs to move faster.
He’s certain people don’t realise women’s involvement in crime.
“Most of the time they aren’t arrested,” he said.
Now that he is free, James hopes to find a job. His advice to young people is “Think for yourself. Don’t be in too big of a hurry to grow up.”