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A beacon of hope

News day / But the Royal Reading Room, which was opened on March 16, is not just a library. It also contains a children’s reading room where inmates can take part in a literacy programme, tentatively called Caribbean Fathers Are Reading (CFAR), where they can read to their children.

Jacob, a writer, teacher, and head librarian at the International School of Port-of-Spain, told Sunday Newsday when she transferred to the prison from the Youth Training Centre (YTC) about four years ago, she realised fathers only received two visits from their children each year. She immediately had the idea of a programme where inmates could read to their children so they could spend quality time with their children, as well as help instil a love for reading in the young ones.

She said the inmates always talk about their children, worry about them, and think about their education.

They always expressed to her that a sense of accomplishment means a lot to them, especially as many feel they do not have a sense of purpose. Encouraging their children to read helps fill that gap.

In addition to this new treat of being read to by their fathers, the children would also receive DVDs of the visits in order to make it a more memorable experience.

The whole project, she explained, started with her book Wishing for Wings, which is based on her first CXC English class in YTC. She said her students found solace in books and began to write about their lives. She, in turn, shared their experiences in her book.

In time, however, she began to worry about boys’ transition to adult prison so she decided to follow them from YTC to the prison, where she once again took up teaching English.

“At YTC they had such a love for reading. It helped them navigate their way through the prison system, helped them think about their lives and their future. Then I got to Port-of-Spain prison and there were a few books lying around, but there was no library. I was bringing in books for my students,” she recalled.

She believed a properly functioning library was necessary and eventually assembled one through donations from the National Gas Company, the US Embassy, teachers from her workplace, and many individuals.

Jacob explained that founder of The Children’s Ark, Simone de la Bastide and directors Kathy Ann Waterman and Vicki Assevero had read Wishing for Wings and wanted to know how they could help.

The organisation is a charitable NGO that caters to the needs of marginalised and “at-risk” children under the age of 16. Although Jacob had already moved to the prison by this time, when she told them her idea for CFAR, they liked the idea of the project and started to work with her on it.

The library soon outgrew its small space but various suggestions for bigger space were rejected for security reasons. In addition, no one wanted to have the library in the part of the prison where the inmates were held because the idea was to bring children there.

“Everyone always liked the idea, including Mr Stewart (Commissioner of Prisons Sterling Stewart), who is a very forward-thinking person. It was just that space is such a premium inside of there.” She said the authorities were very supportive of the idea because it encouraged the inmates to read, and they wanted to read “good” books, the most popular topics being history, biographies and Stephen Hawking.

Eventually a spot was found in the administrative area which was once the death-row block.

Inmates tore down the cells and The Children’s Ark spent approximately $250,000 to refurbish it.

Jacob’s daughter, Ijanaya, designed the children’s area and four prisoners from Carrera interpreted and painted the design on the walls.

The Children’s Ark also sponsored books for the programme, which children would be allowed to take home.

“It has been a really emotional project in many ways. One of the inmates who painted the children’s area used to be in one of those death-row cells. To be able to tear down those cells, which was literally and figuratively one of the darkest places you would ever want to see, and replace them with this light and hope means a lot to the inmates in there,” Jacob said.

The library is run by her NGO, the Wishing for Wings Foundation, so the organisation has control over what goes into the library, including the electronic component.

Jacob said because she was aware of the regulations and restrictions of prison libraries from YTC, the prison authorities trust her to know what is appropriate.

“I think it’s safe to say we now have the most advanced prison library. It was still a small space so we had to have an electronic library. I talked the authorities into a progressive library that inmates would want to come to with electronic devices. About 20 percent of the library is invisible because we have Kindles and iPads with e-books, and audiobooks.” The library contains over 500 titles, with 388 physical books, as well as a few documentaries and films, limited internet access, and a dedicated prisons officer who acts as librarian. Jacob said traditional books were important because the inmates could only visit the library for a few hours a week and could not take the electronic devices back to their cells.

Jacob said the prisoners were very excited about the Royal Reading Room as they see it as a way for them to improve their lives by educating themselves, being involved in their children’s education, as a form of entertainment, and as a connection to the world outside their prison walls.

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