At only five feet, three inches Dr Sheila Rampersad is a tower of conviction.
Rampersad, who often waives and waves away her doctoral title in daily life, has championed the plight of everyday people for more than 30 years in journalism.
As president of the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT), she fiercely defends journalistic freedoms and the rights of its practitioners. And as a radio commentator and newspaper columnist she has brought much needed perspective to pressing national and community issues for more than a decade.
Rampersad called on all that experience to complete her latest journalistic undertaking: the Behind the Crime: The Prison Interviews multimedia series. The enthralling episodic endeavour, which features visual media by Michael A London, can be seen on CCN TV6 News each Tuesday and weekly in the pages of the Sunday Express.
Tough to hear, difficult to repeat
The prison project called for emotional and psychological maturity. Armed with her sharp wit and relatable charm, she willingly walked into the murky cages of this island’s most renowned criminal offenders at the Golden Grove and Maximum Security Prison (MSP) prison facilities.
“I can say lots of things but I feel the real reasons have not yet revealed themselves,” a thoughtful Rampersad said when asked about her motivation for doing the show.
“I know I wanted to tell stories of people’s lives, to be a channel for those who have something to say but are seldom asked or listened to. I also know I wanted to expand journalism’s coverage of crime. But I feel there are other reasons that have not shown themselves to me yet,” she continued with raw honesty when she spoke to Kitcharee on Friday.
Understandably these are not easy stories to tell. True crime drama remains taboo despite soaring ratings on Netflix and other media providers for real-life prison footage. Rampersad was, however, thorough in her preparation.
“The preparation was difficult, rather than the storytelling itself. The stories are compelling on their own. I did years of research into prison psychology and the transactional nature of prisoner interactions. I experimented with various forms and styles of writing until I finally seized upon a particular voice that I could use to channel the voices of all the interviewees: prisoners and victims. Ultimately, I was clear that I wanted to represent everyone fairly and sensitively. That went a long way in unburdening the storytelling,” she revealed.
Facing a monster
Convicted murderer Ryan Ramoutar and a child rapist known as The Germ are two of the notorious offenders she faced.
Ramoutar was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison for the 2004 murder of Samraj “Skully” Rajkumar. Remarkably, Rampersad found the well-spoken prison debate team captain remorseful and accepting of his punishment.
The Germ, however, is a whole different animal. The unshakeable veteran journalist put off, for a week, their initial meeting. When they eventually met, she had to excuse herself momentarily as he spoke casually about violence against women and subduing a rape victim.
“I postponed the interview until I felt personally and professionally comfortable to conduct it,” she recalled.
“My preparatory work helped a great deal to still some predictable anxieties. My approach was to be honest, transparent, to treat all interviewees with dignity no matter what their deviance, and to listen to what everyone had to say with no or little judgement even while I was challenging them. It was a rewarding approach. I trusted them to tell their stories honestly and for the most part they returned that trust.”
Rampersad’s series has had its critics. There are those who would deny voices behind bars and push a “lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key” narrative.
“We all know the intricate failings of the justice system. My series gives faces, feelings and flesh to the criticisms of all aspects of the system.
“The lock-them-up narrative is a limited perspective. Everyone is doing time, not only the guilty person and that questions the satisfaction people feel when the guilty person(s) are punished with jail time. What of those left in the wake of the crimes? And when the guilty are locked away from our view, more come, more come. And many are eventually released. So the ‘lock them up’ solution is a very temporary, transient fix,” she argued.
Life is complex and complicated
Rampersad said documenting the series confirmed her perspective that life is both complex and complicated. Telling, hearing and sharing stories does not necessarily lead to emotional resolution, she said.
“Each life is the centre of an ecosystem involving many other lives. That was confirmed over and over again. I suspected these true life stories would plumb emotional depths and they have. I anticipated the absence of emotional resolution, that feelings would remain unresolved.
“During the process, I am learning how to welcome that absence of a full stop on experiences. I think the series asks that of readers and viewers too. In that way it feels like I share that uncanny space with readers and viewers,” she said.
She admitted, however, to being surprised at the willingness of the convicted criminals and families of the victims alike to talk about their darkest moments.
“I was a little surprised at their need to talk to someone from the free world who listened without judgement. They all wanted to unburden. That was very important to both prisoners and the families I interviewed. They all felt they were being heard for the first time, that someone was interested in their pains and memories and traumas.
“I was also surprised at myself on many occasions, how my journalism and other training kicked in to ask direct questions about events and feelings in some difficult moments during the interactions,” she said.
Rampersad urges her colleagues in journalism to partner with each other to tell stories they feel most passionate about.
“We give voice to those who have none. That’s a basic function of journalism. Our vocation is to serve the public, not our sources, not officialdom, not even our editors. Our responsibility is to the public and all the lives that constitute the public.
“Many journalists want to explore many other stories but are bogged down by daily assignments. I did this series on my own, independent of a media house or sponsorship. Michael London agreed to come on board only on a promise of payment down the road. I think journalists have to explore ways of working together on their own time over long periods to produce the substantial work they want to do but are unable to for practical reasons,” she reasoned.
As for her personal direction, Rampersad said she remains an open book.
“I have much more material than is seen on these prison interviews. I want to find other ways and forms of using the material for the public good. So I will be sticking with this project for a while. When it’s all done, there are countless stories to tell and I hope to be able to write more of them,” she concluded.