When Debbie Jacob migrated from the United States to Trinidad and Tobago some 30 years ago, her initial experience was not pleasant.
She and her family had been targeted by bandits and had become victims of several robberies and house break-ins. At one point she said it was as though their home was being broken into every night, and it became a prison.
Her fear, however, developed into a desire to understand what drove young people to crime, and Jacob emerged from her “prison” to work with youths in the prison system, teaching them skills and aiding in their rehabilitation.
“I had two choices,” she reasoned. “I could continue to be a victim, or I could seek a solution.”
It is for her work with prison inmates that she has been awarded the 2019 Express Individual of the Year award.
Recipients of the annual Individual of the Year awards were announced yesterday by an Express team of editors headed by the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Omatie Lyder.
The Youth of the Year award went to cyclist Teniel Campbell (see story below), while the Community of the Year award was bestowed on the El Socorro Centre for Wildlife Conservation (story on Page 4).
‘I can’t stop crying’
Jacob, a journalist, teacher and author, broke into tears yesterday upon learning of the award, saying it was more of an honour than a Nobel Prize.
“The Express was my first home as a journalist,” she said. “I used to walk through the corridors, past the pictures of the many great people who received this honour on the way to my desk every day. I can’t stop crying.”
Jacob’s work in the prison system is well-documented. She began volunteering at the Youth Training Centre (YTC), teaching English and other skills to young inmates, many of whom have gone on to achieve academic and career success.
Jacob then took her skills to the adult prison system where, in addition to teaching, she established a prison debate programme and launched the Wishing for Wings Foundation, which focuses on inmate rehabilitation.
Under her stewardship, programmes such as furniture making, tiling, barbering and other skill-building programmes were introduced into the prisons. The programmes ensure those leaving the prison system will have a trade or skill they can use to earn an income on the outside, Jacob said.
The debate programme, which is near and dear to Jacob’s heart, trains inmates to voice their views in a constructive way.
And with thousands of Venezuelan migrants making Trinidad their home in recent times, Jacob is launching four new Spanish-speaking debate teams to cater to the Spanish-speaking prison population. “There are 175 Spanish-speaking men in the Maximum Security Prison... and 30 Spanish-speaking women in the Women’s Prison. We will work on literacy and work on giving them a sense of identity,” she said.
Jacob, now 66, has worked with some of this country’s most hardened criminals—men accused of offences ranging from capital murder to narcotics charges, rape and fraud. But she says there is good in everyone and their voices deserve to be heard.
“It became very clear to me very quickly that these were some of the most interesting, most creative, most overlooked people in our society. And what you put into them, you get ten-fold back,” she told the Express.
Jacob said ex-inmates should be given a chance to change. “You cannot imagine how bad it is in there. We are really doing a lot in the prisons to send these men and women back out there with skills,” she said.
“I have seen men come out and turn their lives around to be the most wonderful people I’ve ever met in my life. But the problem is society has to give them a chance. Society has to give them jobs. If you don’t give them a chance, they have to make a living and they’re going to make it how they can get it and what they know best.”
‘We are not listening’
Commenting on the country’s high murder rate, Jacob said the police are going about crime-fighting in the wrong way, and that more communication is needed.
“We are not listening. We have to listen to what (youth) have to say. You can’t solve crime with more police cars. You have to get to the root of the problem. You have to understand where they’re coming from, what they’re thinking, why they are in that life. The more we see the statistics go up, the more we are not listening.”
Jacob said the prison debates are a good place to start listening to what inmates have to say. She lamented that with the exception of Minister of National Security Stuart Young, no other minister nor the commissioner of police had attended this year’s debate. “You lock away so many people and you don’t care to know how they think? You don’t care to know anything about them or how they got there?”
Jacob, however, voiced satisfaction with new marijuana decriminalisation law, saying it would lead to positive changes in the prison system.
“I have seen many, many young men’s lives ruined from stupid marijuana charges,” she said.
“Police need better work to do than picking up people for marijuana. But I think it needs to go further. I think it needs to be legalised, not just decriminalised.
“No good can come from picking up some young man and putting him in prison and waiting for a marijuana charge to come up in court, because what he’s exposed to in there is not good and he’s coming out worse.”
Love for T&T
Jacob said her wish for 2020 is for more people to get involved in community service.
“I wish for everybody to think of one community service project to do. If you don’t have time to volunteer, find an NGO you can contribute financially to. Or take a neighbour’s child who comes home from school unsupervised and do homework supervision with them. Anything you can think of. You have to find a way to give back. If every one of us does one little thing, we would not have the problems that we are having,” she said.
“We all have a voice in this country, and all of our voices must be heard if we are going to be a free, independent and crime-free country.”
Jacob thanked the Express for acknowledging her work, but remained humble, saying she is far from extraordinary.
“Anybody can do what I am doing. I am the most ordinary of ordinary people. I am nothing special. But a little bit of kindness and support and understanding and love can go so far.”
She added: “I love this country. Crime has made this a very sad and angry place. But I live my life every day thankful for the privilege of living here and trying to earn my place.”