The walls of the GP functioned as a membrane between two separable, yet likable communities. The prison itself was located within the community, and through a process of osmosis, men move in and out of the system and between the two spaces. Inside the walls themselves exists an informal community of – chickens, clotheslines, cricket games, basketball matches, and even a recording studio where Jah Cure recorded his first album.
Kingston, Jamaica, 2011
The General Penitentiary of downtown Kingston operates like a sort of prokaryotic cell, men enter and leave the prison walls through an almost penetrable membrane. As a transitory visitor able to voyeuristically permeate the membrane, I saw the same men on the outside and inside of the prison walls. The prison, located within the community of Parade Gardens, holds many men who are from Parade Gardens. And inside the prison walls, I saw men participating in the same activities as their counterparts on the other side, and if anything in more productive and creative ways. Inside the prison walls, men play football and cricket, cook and sell food, gather for various activities, and even record music in the recording studio – Jah Cure recorded his entire first album there. Chickens run around one section of the yard, and a large school compounds holds the four main classrooms where various programs are taught – including an informal “class” I led based on experiential learning techniques.
During my first visit to the “GP” with my friend DMS, I greeted him as he simply walked down the street carrying a James Baldwin book. I asked him, “What are you going to be teaching today?” And he simply responded, “Whatever the conversation is.” I quickly realized what he meant. After entering the prison walls and compound – through a sequence of stares, shouts and calls from the men and 1,000 eyes on my whiteness and femininity – and walking through the main yard corridor, we arrived at the school. At once we slipped into the setting of a math class, and three other “classes” going on, including one in the far back right hand corner where a teacher who is an inmate, was leading a session on what I gathered, gender interpretation from the Bible. After the attention on the two white women (myself, and my friend Ashley who was with me) had cleared, and the conversation resumed to it’s full passionate degree, I realized the problems at stake in the conversation that was being largely guided by religious and Biblical interpretation. I asked DMS gently, “Do you mind if I step in?” He looked at me a bit surprised, “No, of course not?” What I really meant was, “Do you mind if I take over?” And so I did.
In the next 40 minutes I guided the discussion back to the basic gender norms that I had just been discussing in my session with the Area Youth Foundation with young adults – younger versions of many of the men – down the street from the GP at a community center in Parade Gardens. The discussion became about the behaviors, descriptions and responsibilities we place on men and women, and how we can isolate them from the biological frameworks of “man” and “women” to the gender configurations, and social constructions of , “male” and “female.” By the end, their eyes were wide, and ears attuned. Together we got to a recognizable point of understanding: gender is socially constructed, and we have to redefine our own personal and community understanding of gender roles and functions, particularly for the good of our family structures and societal empowerment. For after all, it is women who are guiding most of the households in Kingston, particularly because of the absence of men, many of whom were sitting before me in the classroom of the GP.
The session ended beautifully with all of us joining together to hold hands in one big circle. We pushed out all of the chair-desks to the limits of the room, and I called everyone together to stand in solidarity. As all of the men closed their eyes, I guided a meditation in which I asked them all to think about their role as men in society, as brothers, fathers, uncles and people participating in a role in the community. “Who are we as men, and what will our roles be when we return to society?” As everyone opened their eyes, I felt the consciousness of the room shaking our reality and together we raised our hands and shouted our word for reciprocity, “RESPECT.”
As I have found now in my introductory work in the prison system in Lagos, Nigeria, if we can redefine many of the classical understandings of gender from indoctrinated sources such as society, the Bible and other forms of social conditioning, then we can tease out our own personal thoughts and experiences with gender, from the convicted falsehoods, and create more holistic and formidable relationships between men and women, and the space for their roles in society.