ALTA in Prisons

97 Steps

by Paula Lucie-Smith
(first published in ALTA’s 20th anniversary magazine)

In 1998, Prison Officer Rudolph Garcia climbed the three flights of stairs to ALTA’s Cummins Lane office pleading to be trained as a tutor so he could teach the inmates on Carrera to read. Written correspondence was the inmates’ only communication with those outside the island. Visits meant a boat and then a van to Frederick St, so these were rare. Garcia trained, started teaching, then was transferred to Frederick Street.

There his duties did not allow him to teach, so he paved the way for ALTA volunteers to come in twice weekly to teach. Then he was transferred to Maximum Security Prison (MSP). Soon MSP officers were attending ALTA training, but we realised that their shift work made scheduling almost impossible. Also, the disciplining role of prison officer does not always mesh with the nurturing role of teacher.

Innovative thinking was called for. Why not train the literate inmates to teach the not-so-literate ones? After all, as Garcia often says, “Everybody in here has time.” To prove his point he asks a series of men, “How much time you have?” Every man answers down to the day. “Nine years, two months and six days, Sir.” Garcia flashes his trademark grin, “See! What I tell you Paula. They all have time.”

Carrera was the prison in most need, so at 7am on a clear dry season morning, three ALTA trainers waited patiently at Hart’s Cut for the captain to start the vessel. Its name was painted boldly, Rehab. There had been two vessels, but the Reform sank. Sometime after 8am, we boarded with the officers and assorted religious ministers. Leaving plumes of smoke in our wake, we arrived at the island – and faced the 97 steps.

The scene was much like a Clint Eastwood Western – scores of men clad in navy drill, barefoot or with slippers made from discarded car tires, trudging up the winding stairs laden with items from the mainland. Most carry containers of water, as the island has no supply of fresh water.

A plus is that for once we had more than enough help to carry the training paraphernalia. We approached the climb with hands swinging. We paused at step 59 to take in the spectacular view – really to catch our breath – as inmates passed us on their second lap. The gate loomed and 500 male eyes swivelled in our direction.

Fifteen inmates and Officer Randolph Grant (who is still trying to keep ALTA going at Carrera) waited to be trained as ALTA tutors in the cramped library, which houses mainly out-of-date school texts and encyclopedias. There were challenges: the sweltering heat, not helped by our required neck to ankle clothing; the fact that some inmates training to be tutors should really have been students; and the rushed call to pack up and leave when the 2 pm boat was ready to sail, which could be anytime from noon onwards.

Never ask why someone is in here. The first and only time I made this mistake and asked an officer what the baby-faced youth could have done, the reply was, “Kill a teacher. Manslaughter.”

ALTA started at Carrera in 2001. Garcia spread the word, and in 2002 ALTA conducted two tutor-training courses at MSP with inmate volunteers from MSP, Carrera and Golden Grove Prisons (GGP), for men and for women. In 2002, 58 trained volunteer ALTA inmate-tutors were teaching the non-literate inmates to read and write. ALTA secured funding from the British High Commission, Inter-American Development Bank, Caribbean Money Market Brokers, Community Development Fund and Imjin Security for the first three years up to 2004.

With a track record of success, we aimed to embed literacy within the new thrust towards rehabilitation. But our efforts followed a disheartening pattern: Send ALTA proposal and budget; call every prison contact every day until exhaustion sets in and the programme grinds to a halt. Then, a call is received saying something like, “How come you all didn’t pick up this cheque here long time?”

Cheques in 2005, 2007 and 2009 resuscitated the programme, but the effort involved in starting over from scratch three times has left all concerned dispirited… but not yet defeated. After an encouraging meeting with the then newly-appointed Commissioner of Prisons Martin Martinez, we submitted a new plan in April 2012 to deal with the many obstacles to smooth implementation of inmate-taught ALTA instruction.

Like the inmates, the ALTA prison programme has many steps to climb and time that stretches on with little to account for its passage. Occasionally a message comes to ALTA that we have abandoned the inmate tutors. Garcia has retired, so who will take ALTA into prison now?

Changes seem to be underway in the prison system. The prisons have just been transferred to the Ministry of Justice – a good word… ‘justice’.