BY VERNON DAVIDSON —-
An invitation to give a talk in prison more than 12 years ago, as well as her coverage of Jamaican singer Jah Cure’s case, inspired Dr Baz Dreisinger to start a Prison-to-College Pipeline program in the United States which she is now working at replicating internationally, including in Jamaica.
“I walked out feeling that some of the best and brightest in America were being locked away and something had to change,” Dr Dreisinger told guests at a function held in her honour at the US ambassador’s residence in Kingston last week.
“One shouldn’t have to wear the scarlet letter of a prison sentence for the rest of one’s life,” she argued. “But I think even more deeply than second chances is, we have to think about first chances, because prisons are a hub of disadvantage, of individuals who haven’t had opportunities, haven’t been given access to resources and especially educational resources. So it’s very much about giving people what they should have gotten in the first place.”
Moved by her experience, Dreisinger said she started volunteering in prisons since accepting that speaking invitation. Then, just about seven years ago, she began putting together the Prison-to-College Pipeline program which basically provides inmates with access to tertiary education then funnels them into universities on their release.
“We’ve received federal funding as a show of support for what this is capable of, what this can do in the community. And we have four students graduating this year, one of them is on his way to law school… impacting change from the inside, having lived it,” she told the audience at last week’s function.
Shortly before addressing the function, Dreisinger had told the Jamaica Observer that the program was “hugely” successful so far. She also described as “fantastic” the talks she had with state minister for national security Pearnel Charles Jr and other Jamaican officials about replicating the program here.
“It has opened doors for people, it has changed lives, and also, what I think is important for here — and I spoke about this with Minister Charles who I think really, really gets this — is that a big part of the program is also around public perceptions and misconceptions of the justice system and who’s in it, and understanding what people in prison are capable of. That it’s a lot more than what people think, and if you set the bar high people can rise to that occasion, and it’s very, very powerful,” said Dreisinger, who has traveled to other countries — Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Singapore, Brazil, Australia, and Norway — where she did volunteer work in their correction systems and produced a book, Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World, which was published in 2016.
When she visited Jamaica she went to the Tower Street Adult Correctional Center (also know as General Penitentiary) and saw the music program in operation. “I felt like a fan, because in an interesting way it was Jamaica that brought me into theorizing about prison in the first place when I was writing some articles about Jah Cure’s case,” Dreisinger, who also works as a journalist, told the audience last week.
“What was so interesting about the case is that it made me think long and hard about this philosophical issue of what are we doing when we send people to prison, what does corrections mean. And so going to GP and seeing the rehabilitation-through-music program and sort of understanding that role was enormously powerful for me,” she explained.
Jah Cure (real name Sycatore Alcock) gained international fame for a string of hit recordings while serving 13 years in prison, for robbery, rape and illegal possession of a firearm, to which he was sentenced in 1998. He was released in July 2007 and has since continued his career in music.
“When I went on the global journey for Incarceration Nations I wanted to look at the best and the worst, to understand why it is we respond to crime with prison. Why do we respond to harm with harm rather than repair and opportunity, and use corrections as it was meant to be used,” Dreisinger said. “The word is corrections, it’s not a department of punishment.”