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Two famous prisons before a British promise

Published:Friday | October 2, 2015 | 10:19 AMMel Cooke

British Prime Minister David Cameron's peculiar gift of a prospective new male prison facility in Jamaica, at the cost of over £25 million, has caused a major stir in a country where there is not only a significant number of men serving time here, but also in Britain.

It remains to be seen what the new facility, which is certain to have a high number of British accents in addition to the expected strictly Jamaican cadences, will be named. But there are two adult male correctional facilities in the island which have been enshrined in song. This is in addition to the innumerable references to incarceration which run throughout Jamaican popular music, spanning the gamut from being apprehended to facing the judge and then life behind bars.

Black Uhuru's General Penitentiary is the second track on their 1979 album, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. The name comes from the infamous centre for adult male prisoners on Tower Street in downtown Kingston, which has retained the acronym GP, even after the name change to the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre.

GP it has been and GP it will always be, as how the University Hospital of the West Indies remains UC for generations.

In General Penitentiary, Black Uhuru (then Michael Rose, Ducky Simpson and Puma Jones, with Sly and Robbie forming the core of the band) uses part of the facility's name as a rank of honour for some of the inmates. Still, they go on to give a glimpse of the unpleasantness some of the inmates face. The honours are in the chorus:

'General, generals inna penitentiary'

Then comes the description of the conditions from a first person perspective:

'Down in the dumb cell

Where I can't take those smell

It's like a oven baking for 2,000 years

When the morning come

I and I would run to get some tea

Here comes the bosun with his baton

Saying dreadlocks you don't come here

To drink peas soup and fatten'

The second verse has a warning to those who would choose to commit crimes which would lead them to incarceration they cannot handle - "so if you can't do the time, no bother with no crime".

The St Catherine District Prison in Spanish Town has also been renamed and is now officially known as the St Catherine Adult Correctional Centre. Barrington Levy's Prison Oval Rock is not about the facility, but includes their reaction to the music.

Prisoners dancing

He names the venue and the behaviour of the persons in attendance:

'Some call it Spanish Town

A Prison Oval rock,

The people are skanking

While the daughter them wining

The rude boy them pripping'

And, as it is near to the prison, the prisoners get involved:

'The warders are watching

While the prisoners are dancing

When they hear the music playing'

In a previous interview with The Sunday Gleaner, Barrington Levy said that it was supposed to be a one-off song for a sound system which was then released commercially.

"Prison Oval Rock is not really a song; is a dubplate for Volcano Sound," Levy said. "Is a big dance keep. Nuh Laing (Isaiah Laing of Sting promoters Supreme Promotions) keep da dance deh?" Levy said. Laing remembers. A Gleaner story in 2003, when Sting celebrated its 20th anniversary, records that Laing "actually started his show promotion career in 1976, when he put on dances at Spanish Town Prison Oval, with the immortal Volcano and Gemini sound systems. It was from there that one of Jamaica's most entrenched dancehall tunes came about - Barrington Levy's Prison Oval Rock.

"The prisoners came out and started dancing on the roof; they were lighting newspapers and Barrington Levy was just singing," he said, his eyes lighting up at the memory.

The reaction is etched in Levy's mind as well.

"Da dance deh was a huge dance over Prison Oval," Levy said. "Believe you me, my Lord, it shot!" he exclaimed.

The song was not written from what happened, but for what was projected to happen, as Prison Oval Rock was written and recorded ahead of the dance. In coming up with the lyrics, Levy said, "This is what they told me - the dance a keep in a prison, down side a de prison".

Imagining the scene, he sang about what was to be - and, soon after, saw what he sang about become reality.

"That night at the prison, I never forget what go on. I see some breed a white merino come through the prison hole. I am telling you man, it was a sight," Levy said, remembering how the prisoners signalled their delight by pushing clothing through the ventilation openings.

He did not perform Prison Oval Rock at that dance. And he never re-recorded the song for general release - it is the made-for-sound system track which has become a dancehall classic.

"Is a dubplate for Volcano Sound turn out to be a record," Levy said.