Lessons learnt from prison
THEY MET in prison – both jailed for crimes they said they never orchestrated. They claimed they were simply set up to become drug mules by “so-called friends”.
It was behind the prison bars at HMP Dodds that their friendship grew and it continued when they walked free from that institution last year.
Today Sharon and Janelle (not their real names) are happy to be released, but their time in confinement has caused them to be more careful when choosing friends and more aware of feeding the spiritual man.
When the SUNDAY SUN caught up with Sharon, 19, and Janelle, 37, they were actively participating in a special evening treat organized by members of Healing For The Soul Ministries through their prison outreach programme, Project Change.
Tears were flowing down Sharon’s face as she sang I Almost Gave Up. Janelle soon joined her at the microphone and they rendered an encouraging song which they penned while in prison.
To those looking on from the outside, these young women may just be statistics on the list of people who do wrong and serve time. However, those who know the true story see them as victims. Today both women say they hold no hatred for or anger at those who caused them to be imprisoned.
Prior to life at HMP Dodds, Sharon was a happy-go-lucky teenager without a close relationship with her family. Her father [who resides abroad] and her mother were both 16 years old when she was conceived. The oldest of her dad’s 11 children, and her mum’s three, Sharon saw her father for the first time when she was 16 years old. This time of bonding lasted just three days, as he was sentenced to a short stay in prison, for a minor offence, during the time she visited him in Canada.
In June, 2011 she moved in with her grandmother who, coincidentally, resided a few minutes’ walk from Sharon’s family. However, Sharon and Janelle had not yet met.
At the invitation of a family friend who lived close by, Sharon agreed to take a trip to Jamaica with two other male friends. Saying yes to the offer was the turning point in her life.
“It was to be a casual trip. My ticket was paid for and I had my own spending money. The two guys who were to accompany me had well paid government jobs and I was not suspicious about the trip at all; not even when the young lady called while I was checking in at the airport to say she could not make the trip,” Sharon explained.
She enjoyed her days of sightseeing and shopping in Jamaica but the nightmare began the day she was due to return.
“I got a knock on my door and this woman who had been escorting us around gave me a bag large enough to fit into a shoe box,” she reported. “She told me the guys had left for the airport with some marijuana and since they could not take all, I would have to take the rest.
“I refused. I told her I was not into that stuff and she left the room, only to return shortly after with a big, strapping man who did not say a single word. He just stood by the door with a gun in his hand.
“The woman said I must do as I was told or I would never see my family again. They forced me to swallow some of the drugs, which were wrapped in small plastic bags, even though I kept vomiting.
“With that over, she ordered me to shower, then laid clothes out for me to wear. They were party clothes and I was not comfortable wearing them. She placed the bag in a knapsack inside my suitcase, locked it and kept the keys. They then drove me to the airport, took my cellphone and left me with my SIM card,” Sharon recalled.
On her flight home she was a nervous wreck but the shock came when she landed at Grantley Adams International Airport. Before she could retrieve her luggage she was stopped by a policeman in civilian clothes who ordered herto collect her suitcase and accompany him. Afraid and feeling quite alone, she obeyed, all the while making every attempt to explain her ordeal in Jamaica to the officer.
What she said fell on deaf ears. She was taken to Oistins Police Station, where she was charged. She would next spend two days at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital waiting for the drugs to pass out.
In court a few days later, without her attorney being present, Sharon pleaded guilty to possession of drugs and drug trafficking.
“It’s strange! By the time charges are read to you, even though you are innocent, you feel guilty,” she would say later say.
In prison, she cried every day. She hated being told what to do and when to do it. More painful was the sight of her grandmother breaking down in tears during prison visits.
“I knew I was the reason. I saw her pain each time she visited, but for the first time my family was taking time to listen to me,” she said.
Sharon spent three and a half months on remand [with repeated court appearances] before she was fined $15 000 and given her ticket to freedom.
Janelle, a mother of four who “mothered” Sharon while the two were incarcerated, was returning home from a wedding in Guyana in 2007, when she was asked by someone she knew to take back a suitcase of books for a friend. A search at the airport revealed that the suitcase contained nine kilos of cocaine.
“I remembered as I was going to one customs officer, he sent me to another officer. This officer headed straight to the suitcase with the books and asked if he could cut the bag open.
“I told him yes. When he did, four sections were stuffed with cocaine. There was also cocaine between the books and portfolio,” Janelle disclosed.
Like Sharon, she was taken to Oistins Police Station, charged, kept overnight and later sentenced to three years (27 months) for drug possession and trafficking.
The two met while Janelle was carrying out her prison duties. It was hard for her in jail as her boyfriend and childhood sweetheart died while she was there.
“That was my breaking point. I was 11 months into my prison time and I gave up the will to live. I felt there was nothing to go home to. He had developed dengue fever and I kept telling myself if I was out I could have helped him. I blamed myself. The hurtful thing was that he died on December 14, the same day as my son’s birthday.
“I would laugh and appear to be happy for Sharon’s sake, but at night I would cry. Every night I cried,” confessed Janelle, who was released in June, 2011. She also missed her children who were affected by her time in prison.
“It affected my 12-year-old and eight-year-old daughters because we were close, but it has brought us closer. I also thank God for the support of my parents and siblings,” she remarked.
In prison, Janelle rallied to start a cosmetology course and beauty clinic for inmates.
Reliving her time behind bars, she disclosed: “Going to bed at night was hard. You could be sent to bed as early as 3 p.m.
“I would always tell Sharon, who was a real cry-baby, that we could make our sentences easy or difficult depending on our attitude and reaction to our situations. I had no problem.”
Today, Sharon advises young people to be careful how they allow friends to lure them into situations.
“Weigh the positives with the negatives, then chose the positive,” she says. “Life outside of prison can be hard, especially when people with no knowledge about your situation judge you by the stories they hear.”
Janelle, who returned to work in April, has this advice for people trying to make it on the outside after serving time: “Don’t come out looking for love from the first person who comes along.”
Both women lend support to former inmates and thank members of Healing For The Soul Ministries, particularly Jennifer Reid, Judy Linton and Ryan Phillips of HMP Dodds for their support inside and outside of prison.
Sharon and Janelle now seek to walk circumspectly, “redeeming the time”, as they leave these episodes of their lives behind them.