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i’m in the belly of the whale – animation & prison reform project

i’m in the belly of the whale – animation & prison reform project

Last week I graced the red carpet of a film premier in New York City, Time Square. A few days later I rubbed shoulders with politicians and the Mayor of Washington DC Ms Muriel Browser for her Birthday celebration.

This week I faced something so starkly different, so at polar opposites to my red carpet moment that it took me a few days to find my grounding. I am one week into a four week training programme at Metcalfe Prison for young men and South Camp for young women in Kingston Jamaica. My first day into the training, as I got back to my room I fell onto my bed sobbing. For though I have done this kind of work before, it never becomes normal for me. I can never get accustom to what I hear and see from these young inmates. For as I looked into the cells of these young men all I saw was darkness. My first instinct was to take my phone out and take a picture. But of course I had to leave it at the front gate.

So I immediately put into practice a wonderful lesson told to me a few weeks earlier while on a forest trek in Suriname. Martha Lise Tjoe Nij our guide (in more ways than one) implored for us to put away our phones. She said “Let the memory be the picture. Don’t see life only in that small square box that you cling too everyday. Look up and appreciate the bigger picture.” That prison cell will never go from my memory now and I will use it as a reminder to continue to do what I do. This strengthened me even more. I promised myself to bring some kind of meaning, expression, creative release to these young souls. Even if it was temporary.

As the days moved on my despair turned to hope as I recognized that this project, ‘A New Path’ conducted by the Organisation of American States and the Government of Jamaica is a unique one. These young offenders are exposed to yoga, art therapy, dance and drama music and now animation. Consistent, long term and with a follow up plan to ensure that the remandees fit back into school and their life after their incarceration… I feel a sense of hope. As one young lady said in my first class in response to a question I asked. I said to them that animation is not just about making things move. It’s also about telling your story. So I asked them what story would they like to tell the world. The quietest in the group shouted. “Expect the unexpected.” What a beautiful story that would be.