Professors aid Jamaican prison reform


An unexpected alliance between the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the Criminal Justice Institute was formed in the Caribbean as Professors Charles Nesson and Charles Ogletree met in Kingston, Jamaica, to work with a progressive prison project called Reverence for Life. The novel program adheres strongly to the philosophy of rehabilitation and emphasizes the development of self-respect in a non-denominational setting. Nesson said the program is based on the fundamental belief that rehabilitation as an ethic of correctional administration is capable of transforming a society.

The Berkman Center initially went to Jamaica with the intention of bridging the digital divide on an international level. Jamaica captured the Center’s interest because of its 30 years of a flat GNP and the genuine interest Jamaican officials had shown toward technological development and Internet competency.

“Our initial hypothesis was that education is at least one of the means of bridging the [digital] divide,” said Nesson. “If you’re going to do something that has staying power, it has got to take shape in the form of indigenous competence, and education was the way to go.”

The education project began with a focus on children and elementary education until a local official suggested that their efforts excluded a substantial portion of the Jamaican population. Nesson heeded the advice and eventually recognized an opportunity in Jamaica’s new prison-reform initiative. According to the Jamaica Observer, a 20-member research team flew to the island to observe the Reverence for Life program. Professor Charles Ogletree represented Harvard’s Criminal Justice Institute to examine the program’s criminal justice hypothesis.

“During our visit to Jamaica, we observed a community culture that was powerful and unique,” said Ogletree. “Offenders who were released on a promise to return to prison, no matter how severe their crimes, returned to prison after weekend furloughs. If Jamaica, and other countries, can shift the cost of housing, feeding and providing medical care to its prisoners by allowing them to go on furloughs then the entire criminal justice system benefits.”

Ogletree and Nesson immediately established a good rapport with the prisoners, who Nesson described as “totally receptive.”

Nesson sought to take advantage of the wealth of talent at the prison by holding training sessions instructing the inmates on how to record music videos, burn them onto compact discs and put them on the web. Jamaica’s musical tradition sparked the idea.

“We want to give inmates the opportunity to take their own product and do something with it. And Jamaica is deep into music,” he said.

Thaddeus Miles, Director of Public Safety for MassHousing, brought his experience incorporating technology into the Massachusetts public housing facilities to the Harvard team. He offered advice on the incorporation of technology into the administrative system and educational programs for prisoners. Miles said that his experience produced a mish-mash of emotions including excitement, humility, depression and hope.

“Despite some horrendous living conditions prisoners have embraced programs such as the Reverence for Life, which causes one to examine [oneself], to love the self, to think from the soul and brain not the penis and wallet,” Miles said.

The program, however, is not without its critics. Jeremy Liegl, a 3L who took the trip to report back to Nesson’s Evidence class, confirmed some of Miles’ sentiments concerning the decaying physical surroundings.

“The prison conditions, especially at Tower Street, are truly abhorrent,” Leigl said. “The group’s prison expert said that Tower Street was without a doubt the worst prison he had seen in over 30 years of studying penal systems around the world. Severe over-crowding, lack of sufficient water, medical facilities and unacceptable treatment of the mentally ill all contribute to questions about [Reverence for Life].

“Some in the Harvard group questioned how money could be spent on rehabilitation programs when so many prisoners in these maximum security facilities lack the basic essentials of a healthy life,” said Leigl.

Ignoring the inevitable concerns as to how to allocate prison resources, Liegl believed the Reverence for Life program to be fascinating and effective.

“If [the promise of rehabilitation] can effect dramatic change for other prisoners down the road, then some might argue that foregoing improvements to the prison conditions in the short term may indeed be worth it,” he said.

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