Graduation at Fort Augusta leaves inmates, visitors on high
It was billed as a graduation, but what transpired at the Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre, St Catherine, was a curious mix of activities that left inmates and visitors on a high.
As dancehall stalwart dancer Shelly Belly rocked the place, some inmates at the all-female institution looked on, memorised his movements in seconds and dared to show that they, too, could really dance as well. With friends cheering and shouting their approval as one of Jamaica's most established hard-core dancers took the Fort Augusta through a crash course in the some of the latest dance moves, they showed they could keep pace, and it was abundantly clear that all were enjoying themselves.
Among visitors cheering the hardest was Jesus Orus Baguena, head of cooperation of the European Union (EU) delegation in Jamaica, and when the music stopped his one-word endorsement was spontaneous.
"Brilliant!" he uttered, as if in a trance.
Afterwards, the EU delegate spoke to The Gleaner about the impressions of what he had just witnessed.
"It is very rewarding to see the enthusiasm of some of the inmates in their work. I was particularly impressed by the way they picked up the steps of the dances when they had the outside dancers and how quickly they imitated them - almost immediately. That's how we see that the music puts everybody together in these kind of events. Normally, you can tell the different groups, but once there is music and dance going on, everybody is one," he explained.
Earlier, the inmates had also demonstrated their talent in poetry, acting and singing, fashion designing and modelling, much to the delight of visitors and other inmates, in an afternoon of activities dubbed 'TGIF' (Thank God It's Friday).
Staff officer Joan Wint pointed out that it actually was a celebration of the five inmates who had graduated from the Level 1 course in massage therapy, offered by the HEART Trust/NTA, but with a major difference.
"It was (also) about rehabilitation. The inmates were demonstrating how they had benefited from the various courses in beaded jewellery. They had completed exams and the graduation today was about celebration of their achievements," the senior officer disclosed.
Carla Gullotta, founder of Stand Up Jamaica, which organised the day's event, described it as a summer concert with a difference.
"The show was lovely; they have been working hard and this is helping to keep the vibes high, keep you going, keep you feeling good, keep you feeling nice with something different from the everyday routine."
That view is endorsed by Mervin Smith, superintendent in charge of the institution, who pointed to the importance of strong, sustainable partnerships with organisations such as Stand Up Jamaica, Food For The Poor, Stella Maris, and other churches which continue to work with inmates at Fort Augusta.
The only all-female penal institution in Jamaica, Fort Augusta is remote, with no bus routes running nearby, and so visits are not as often as they are for inmates at all the adult male institutions, which are much easier to access on foot or by vehicle. Sporting activities are at a minimum as well, and so for the women, Friday was necessary and vital as a means of de-stressing, maintaining good order and generally keeping morale high.
HELPING TO COPE
"Somebody might argue that this was just an occasion for you to jump up, but because they (inmates) are not into the wider society to enjoy themselves or take part in many other such activities; I do believe this does help in the rehabilitative process as a means of de-stressing. It will also help in calming the whole situation here, in that after an activity like this, the inmates have so much to talk about, and this will occupy them in helping them to cope with the fact that they are here in incarceration," the superintendent disclosed.
"At times they tend to be forgotten, but I think the Department of Correctional Services is doing a lot to help by partnering with groups like Stand Up Jamaica, Food For The Poor, and there are a host of others. There is also Stella Maris, which is an integral part in the whole activities, and the other church groups will come in from time to time to build on the spiritual aspect of the lives of the ladies here."