Restorative Justice in Jamaica: Redeeming the back story to Songs of Redemption

An attempt to redeem from the dustbin of history the back story and some of the principals left out of the highly touted new film, Songs of Redemption

Some weeks ago I went to see Songs of Redemption (Hereafter SOR) with a couple of friends, one of them an anthropologist who has written extensively about Jamaica and recently made her first film, the other an activist, both Jamaican. The film, set in Kingston’s legendary General Penitentiary (GP), is about an innovative rehabilitation programme that uses music as a tool, helping a set of inmates serving time for everything from petty theft to murder most foul, to discover and hone their musical talent. The film is a stunning production by Fernando Guereta, whose earlier film Why Do Jamaicans Runs so Fast, many of us have seen and appreciated. SOR takes us right into GP, an institution that has been a reference point in many a classic Jamaican song and into the lives of a group of prisoners who absolutely transfix  you with their dramatic stories and songs, their humanity, their selves. The scenes of imprisoned men milling around the compound of GP in rag tag bunches is, to me, unforgettable.

The quote below accompanies the Youtube video trailer of the film (embedded beneath the quote):

“Songs Of Redemption” is a documentary that captures the story of redemption and rehabilitation of Jamaican inmates of the General Penetentiary in Kingston. It features riveting interviews and powerful original Reggae music created, performed and produced by inmates wardens and Local Producers.

This documentary is dedicated to
the extraordinary work of human rights activist, Carla Gullotta.


After viewing SOR the three of us discussed the film over dinner. While I thought it documented an important initiative that definitely needs wider support and awareness i felt uncomfortable about the fact that all the principals behind actualizing the film and the project appeared to be Europeans and that in an unfortunate way the film therefore reproduced the stereotype or trope of the white saviour rescuing abject black subjects and promising salvation. The latter are revealed to Jamaican society and the world as helpless, incarcerated subjects worthy of being heard and ‘redeemed’.

The one black subject with some authority in the film is a Superintendent Fairweather, on the verge of retirement, who by his own account, had always been a champion of prisoner rehabilitation. The impression the film leaves you with is that Carla Gullotta, a Jamaicanized Italian activist, spearheaded this innovative programme under the approving eye of Supe Fairweather sometime in 2007.

Imagine my surprise therefore to find out that a rehabilitation programme had actually been in place in the prison system  since the late 90s when Desmond Green, founder of the Reverence for Life Foundation, started a branch at South Camp Road (formerly the Gun Court, now The Peace Centre). Louise Frazer-Bennett, who used to manage Ninjaman and Bounty Killer was part of that project and literally pioneered the introduction of music-related programming here. In 2000 Kevin Wallen, a former street kid who had later gone to school in Canada and become a motivational speaker, returned to Jamaica with his brothers hoping to contribute towards the nation in a meaningful way. They started and ran a computer boutique, One Stop Computers, at the New Kingston Mall.  While in Canada Kevin had become close to Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, a prominent boxer who had been controversially imprisoned in the United States for 20 years before being freed, an experience that had turned him into a campaigner for prisoners’ rights and rehabilitation. Bob Dylan famously wrote and sang the song ‘Hurricane’ in his honour.

Wallen describes how it all began:

In 1989, when Reuben Carter’s movie was coming out, I brought him to Jamaica to speak. We agreed to give free tickets to some inmates to hear Reuben speak. The inmates came on the bus from the prison, part of a program called Reverence For Life, run by Desmond Green. After Ruben spoke, one of them stood up and told his story. I remember Ruben said to him, “You know, the one thing you have where you are is time! So what ever it is that you need to figure out, that’s where you should to start. Start by using your time.”

Seeing the inmates’ passion and listening to them talk with Ruben, I volunteered to work with them at the South Camp Prison. I was looking for something more meaningful than computer sales, and I wanted to understand why my life had turned out good and they were suffering. Maybe by sharing my journey with them that would make a difference (source: Kevin Wallen’s forthcoming autobiography co-authored with Fern Nesson).

Influenced by Carter, Wallen started getting involved with prisoners in the correctional system here, first giving motivational talks, then building a library, introducing computers into the prison and gradually working with a group of inmates who had formed a self-help unit called SET (Students Expressing Truth). SET, which was highly organized and completely inmate-driven had started holding quiz competitions, spelling bees and other activities in prison.

Along with Charlie Nesson, a Harvard Law School professor who had also been working in the Jamaican prison system Wallen turned the computer lab into a transformational project. Nesson is the founder of the  Berkman Center for Internet and Society, one of the earliest outfits “to demonstrate the transformative potential of the cyber environment.  The self-styled ‘Dean of Cyberspace’ set up a programme using Harvard personnel and resources to introduce Jamaican inmates to cyberspace.Provided with the latest technologies inmates learnt video editing, Photoshop, graphic design, built 3-d houses, wrote syllabuses and taught each other to use the programmes. Most of this work was done at the South Camp Road prison facility.

After his success at South Camp Wallen built a computer lab at Fort Augusta, the women’s prison, which was also hugely successful and by 2006 tried to introduce the programme to the GP by starting a small project there but to his surprise met with resistance, including from Superintendent Fairweather, presented in Songs of Redemption as a champion of prison rehab programmes. “It seemed like the powers that be liked things the way they were.” Wallen said. Doggedly sensitising the authorities to the benefits of rehabilitation and restorative justice Wallen built a computer lab that could hold 30 inmates at a time at GP. Nesson and Wallen then started thinking about the possibility of starting a radio station at the prison, researching it on the internet and finally with permission from the Commissioner of Corrections and funding from UNESCO which provided the equipment and training, CEDA providing funds for building the space, the radio station was established. The motivation for starting the station was a particular inmate named Serano (who plays a leading role in Songs of Redemption) whose voice and singing had made an impression as early as 1999 when he sang with the Reverence for Life project.

in 2008 David Sasaki, known to me from Global Voices Online took note of the innovative rehabilitation programme on a PBS blog site called Idea Lab:

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?

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).


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.

Viewing Songs of Redemption you wouldn’t get even a hint of this rich history. The impression one gets is that an Italian activist, Carla Gulotta, arrived at the General Penitentiary in 2007 and set up the music studio and programme with help from various NGOs. In fact it was Kevin Wallen who introduced Carla to the SET project at GP in 2007. Shortly after that his involvement in the programme was terminated by Superintendent Fairweather and Carla took over the project. Wallen was by now bankrupt after 10 years of putting his own resources into the various computer labs he had built. Unable to repay money he had borrowed from Carla, he retreated to the hills, literally to lick his wounds and recover. As Wallen says in his forthcoming autobiography, co-authored with Fern Nesson:

Over the years, it became harder and harder to work in the prisons. The Administration gave me such a hard time. They preferred programs that made big splashes rather than SET. They didn’t care that a SET member had reconciled with the person that he had harmed or that he had called his mother just to say thank you. I saw a lot of changes in these men but the institution was so caught up in punishment that they were not ready to appreciate SET.

Charlie Nesson corroborates the sequence of events retailed by Wallen. He recalls how Superintendent Fairweather would refuse to send inmates to the computer lab when it was first constructed and had to be persuaded of the importance of rehabilitation for prisoners. Asked in a Gleaner interview to name five things that could reform Jamaica’s prison system Nesson replied, “Number One would be to change the real mission of the correctional services from warehousing to rehabilitating prisoners, which means helping them to rehabilitate themselves.” That was in 2010. Yet by January 2013 SOR was portraying the person in charge of GP as a veritable champion of restorative justice–as always having had the philosophy that prisoners needed active programming to help them rehabilitate themselves. What a farce.

I emailed Fernando Guereta to ask if I could talk to him about the film but received no reply. Am still willing to carry his side of the story if he makes contact.

Finally, just to remind myself I asked my anthropologist friend who teaches at an Ivy League university in the US and has written extensively on violence, reparative justice and such things, why she, like me, had been skeptical of SOR. This was her response:

Re. film, I think I felt uneasy about the lack of context, and the framing of redemption (rather than rehabilitation), and what that meant.  Also, wasn’t thrilled about the implicit thing of the white woman “savior” introducing the program and no follow up on what was going to happen now that the superintendent was leaving — will it continue?  Who will run it?  Who was she and why do we not see her except in the beginning, etc.?

Another friend, Garnette Cadogan, who is here writing a story on the Patois Bible for the Paris Review had similar questions. Where was the context? Why wasn’t the programme historicized properly? Why was the whole story so vague?

You didn’t have a sense of a point of view; you didn’t have a sense who was doing the programmes; there were all these invisible people–who was teaching the music programmes? how many prisoners were involved? how much time did they spend? Its ostensibly about the reform of prisoners through music programmes but we got no information really about the music programme, we got no information about who was teaching them,or recruiting them, we got no sense of the history, how did it fit in with the other programmes that were there? it was too acontextual. You find yourself wondering is this the programme Jah Cure, the famous Reggae singer who recorded his megahits while in prison emerged from? was it an offshoot of it?

I had wondered too why there was no mention of Jah Cure, it seemed an obvious reference. According to Wallen Cure’s trajectory is different because producer Bogdanovich and others were involved in his musical rebirth but that’s another story.

According to the film’s direcor, Nando Guereta (see comments), the EU did not fund this film as i had said earlier so I withdraw that statement. He also points out that he was commissioned to make a film about Ms. Gulotta’s work therefore he didn’t see the need to focus on Wallen. I think he misses the point that Wallen ought to have been at least mentioned when setting the context for Gulotta’s work here. But of course as more than one person has complained the film is acontextual which is such a pity and not characteristic of Nando’s earlier films. This post is merely an attempt to historicize SOR, to provide some of the fascinating background to a restorative justice initiative that needs to be known more widely, both here in Jamaica and the rest of the world.

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