When Debbie Jacob began writing a series of columns describing her interactions with the young men at the Youth Training Centre, I was often moved by her descriptions of their encounters. Her columns were—as they often are—insightful and full of empathy without being either condescending or sappy.
So when her book, Wishing for Wings was published, I was keen to read it.
I picked it up one evening, intending to just skim the opening to see how she had approached it, and before I knew it, I had read the entire thing. I simply could not put it down.
Jacob respectfully narrates the stories of these young men, and it is clear why she earned their trust. But even as she respects their privacy, she reveals circumstances—mostly in their words—and to me, it is this aspect that makes this book required reading for everyone—especially those who believe that the answer to solving crime lies in buying armoured sports utility vehicles and personnel carriers, and lots of guns, helicopters and what one letter writer referred to as “war toys.”
Essentially, the book outlines several journeys: hers, as she apprehensively accepts the challenge to volunteer her teaching skills to help these youngsters prepare for the CXC English Language examinations over eight months; and theirs as they discover the power of the written word to help them express their submerged feelings, as well as to learn some semblance of trust and friendship.
The stories that emerge—their personal tales of how and why they ended up doing time in that remand centre—offer a glimpse into the conditions under which so many of our youth are being brought to adulthood. Their worlds are inhabited by absent fathers, struggling mothers, neighbourhood dons, inviting them to join the ranks of thieves, drug pushers and gangs. Mostly, they are fuelled by two things, a sense of the hopelessness of their situations, and a broad, pervasive anger towards the world.
Though it is global; when you get a sense of how deeply fractured these children must be, you have to wonder how they even manage to survive.
Jacob started off with 27 and a mandate to bring the number down by half; she ended up with seven going all the way. The circumstances forcing the whittling down are upsetting, because although it was clear that not all were able to do the exams, it was mainly out of resource constraints that more could not be accommodated.
Now, I know that many people, distraught as they are by the current state of criminal mayhem (we are no longer in descent, I believe; we have become exactly what we are), would instinctively respond that the YTC, like all penal institutions exists to punish wrong-doers, but that denies the rehabilitative aspect that should be paramount. If we cannot help people to pull their lives together, what would be the point? To return them to the same patterns of behaviour when their sentences are served?
You see, as agitated as the population is, as vicious as the crimes have become, an approach that focuses only on stamping out “cockroaches” is one that misunderstands the root of the evil (or is not interested in finding it).
So many people have warned that the politically expedient nature of this strategy is only further compounding the problem—why is it so hard to see that this is an issue that cannot be trifled with because the stakes are simply too high?
Among the issues that Jacob comments on is the conditions under which these young people exist at what is primarily a remand centre. We have heard similar tales of disgusting conditions at the Remand Yard; about the unconscionable delays in having matters heard; about the countless pointless visits to courts when nothing gets resolved. What impact does that have on the psyche of the young, and even repeat offenders?
There are stories in there of young men unfairly held, and there are their stories, told in their words through the essays she set them to write. One of them was particularly gripping because it tells, perhaps most comprehensively, the series of events that could hijack a young man’s life and toss him to this place of darkness that leads to him writing in relief of his survival:
“I was alive and when a Galil, semi-automatic is aiming at your back and you jump a wall—that seemed too high—and got hit in your foot causing a numbing pain and shocking feeling to overtake you or your arm is pushed violently forward from the bullet of a 9mm pistol then, you could smile. You could feel proud to know that you survived—might be by the skin of your teeth—but you survived man!”
I think this book should be read by anyone trying to understand our society.
Towards the end, Jacob says, “I do not know what happened to all of the 27 students who first came to class. I know at least three of them are back in prison. Dorian is dead. JR is working as an electrician and hoping to pursue his passion: cooking. Some of the students are still in YTC serving their sentences.”
And while we think that’s their world, it really is ours as well.