The pews in the prison chapel fall silent when Devon Anglin takes the stage, in front of the life-size mural of Christ and, with a shy smile, launches into an intense rap tune of his own composition.
Bravo wing goes wild.
“In my life I’m kind of having some problems,” he raps with some understatement.
Anglin is serving a life sentence for the 2009 nightclub slaying of Carlo Webster.
Next up at the prison’s talent expo is Christopher Myles, one of four men who robbed Diamonds International jewelry store, on New Year’s Day, 2014. Now he’s rapping about literacy.
One of his accomplices on that day, James McLean, has already performed his own composition.
Later, a prison band featuring musicians convicted of sex offenses, burglary and drug smuggling belts out a note-perfect rendition of the reggae-pop hit of the summer, “Cheerleader.”
It’s a little surreal. It’s incredibly entertaining. It is also evident that there is plenty of talent behind the concrete walls and razor wire fences of HMP Northward.
“Not a lot of persons believe in rehabilitation,” says Michelle Dennis-Powell, the prison’s literacy coordinator and organizer of last Friday’s event. “Some persons believe lock them down and give them a little injection.”
She sees it differently.
Ms. Dennis-Powell teaches reading, writing, art and music to the residents of Northward.
“The reality is that they are coming back in society. How can we face it, how can we make them a better person so when they go out there I’m not afraid, you’re not afraid?”
In the pews at Friday’s talent expo are a number of familiar faces from high-profile court cases – the Diamonds International robbers, the Romanian card skimming gang, the accountant who scammed Solomon Harris law firm.
Ms. Dennis-Powell says she does not think about why they are here.
“They need to understand they have committed a crime and there are consequences for that, but it is not my job to punish them,” she said. “The judge did her job, my job is to rehabilitate, to transform.”
For some prisoners, that means teaching them to read and write and giving them the practical and functional skills that will help them get a job when they are released.
For others it is about uncovering hidden talent.
Brian Borden had not picked up a paint brush before he walked into HMP Northward. Last week he sold one of his compositions for $100.
Not enough to feed his family but still, to borrow another line from Devon Anglin’s song, it’s “a dollar that’s honest.”
The Court of Appeal will look again, in November, at Borden’s conviction for the shooting of Robert Macford Bush – the murder that started the tit-for-tat shooting spree in Grand Cayman in 2011 that remains the bloodiest period in the island’s history.
Borden strongly maintains his innocence. He was so confident he would not be convicted of the killing that he married his fiancée while on remand, prior to the conclusion of his trial last August.
He says he hopes to be back in his yard by Christmas. But Borden, who acknowledges he has not always been on the right side of the law, says prison has changed him.
“I can’t just walk through the door and back into the same life,” he said.
For Leighton Rankine, poetry is a creative and emotional outlet. The winner of the 2014 talent expo, he is constantly scribbling in his notepad and sends poems to his kids as presents.
Rankine is not due for release until 2020 after being convicted of shooting and injuring two people outside the Club 7 nightclub in February, 2012.
He was kicked in the head with steel-toe boots during the altercation and says he has no recollection of the shooting.
Rankine, 39, admits he sold drugs in the past. He says he had to fend for himself as a teenager after his mother moved to Colombia.
It seemed more honest, to him, at the time, to sell drugs, than to steal. It’s not something that he plans to go back to, he says.
He is determined to use his time inside productively and hopes, one day, to publish an anthology of his poems.
“I am trying to keep myself and my mind occupied on positive things. Poetry is something I use to express my feelings, any time I feel certain ways I just sit down and write. Anything that I can do in prison to better myself when I get out, I am willing to do.”
A taste of freedom
The inmates assembled in the chapel for Friday’s talent expo all wear the same prison garb, blue trousers and shirts, or a white Literacy Day T-shirt. Efforts at individuality in the face of uniformity emerge in the array of bandanas, sunglasses and jewelry on display.
There is a similar assertion in the poetry, art, writing and music of the inmates.
There is a form of freedom in the exercise of the imagination.
“We do it because we find ourselves pretty much bored and we got long sentences,” says Sherlock Bodden, who has a portfolio of framed paintings that would not look out of place in the gallery of Cayman’s famous marine artist Guy Harvey.
“It helps me get through it. I sit down in my cell block and people don’t bother me,” says Bodden, who is coming to the end of a long stretch for attempted murder and will be up for parole next year.
Like his cousin, Brian Borden, he did not realize he could paint till he went to prison. He has sold dozens of his works, mostly sea creatures and nature scenes, and hopes to earn some money from painting and carpentry when he is released.
Sheldon Brown, one of Northward’s more famous inmates, now the author of five books, has been behind bars for more than a decade. It might turn out to be the best thing that has ever happened to him.
Brown has focused his intense energy on writing, working in his cell until the early hours of the morning on his thrillers, aiming to be the next John Grisham or Dan Brown. Through his characters, he has journeyed way beyond the walls of Northward and into the worlds of global terrorism and counterfeit pharmaceuticals.
“Some people say you’ve been here 10 years and you are happy every day, how do you do it?” he said.
“I tell them believing in God, being strong and being focused. If I wasn’t focused on something that could be productive in the future, maybe I wouldn’t be that calm or happy as I am every day.”
Brown now runs a creative writing class at the prison and is mentoring other inmates. He tells them, first and foremost, to preach a positive message, even when they write about crime.
He was a writer on the outside, but says no one took him seriously. The opportunities did not come till he developed his talent behind bars.
Brown is serving a 22-year sentence for attempted murder after being convicted of the 2004 shooting of James Fernando Martin at the Cayman Islander Hotel.
“I didn’t commit the crime and the whole world knows it,” he said.
“But I must say I am glad that I am here because if I wasn’t, I’m not sure I’d be writing and I’m not sure I would have put crime down.
“I’d been trying before I came here but it was difficult.”
Brown, watching the talent show from the back row of the chapel, acknowledges that not everyone is comfortable with the idea of prisoners performing, maybe even having fun.
“You have to give an inmate the chance to move ahead,” he says. “Being here is a negative environment in the first place. If you don’t get an outlet to be creative, to improve yourself, when you get out, you go back to the same thing you know. “Because of my writing I feel like I have a future. Life is worth living.”
A few years ago, he says, the prison was a more n
egative place. Now inmates are more focused on transforming their lives, instead of smoking ganja.
The balance between offering prisoners genuine opportunities to reform and the public’s desire for a tough approach to crime is a difficult one for prison officials.
Kathryn Dinspell-Powell, deputy chief officer in the Ministry of Home Affairs, said it had been proven that imprisonment alone was ineffective and actually leads to increased re-offending rates.
She said prisoners needed purposeful activity aimed at giving them education and employment skills to transform their outlook on life. If anything, she says, the prison could be doing more.
“Unfortunately, due to shortages in staffing and other resources,” she said, “the prison service is not currently able to meet the level of needs of incarcerated offenders across the board.”
She said the ministry was working with volunteers and advocating for more resources for restorative justice programs. For Ms. Dennis-Powell, strong rehabilitation programs mean a safer community for everyone.
Prisoners who return to society with new skills, talent and interests are less likely to come back.
Ms. Dennis-Powell says it is important to try to see the person behind the crimes, to remove the labels and to bring the best out of them.
Gangster: novelist; robber: rapper; killer: artist, prisoner: poet. Prison, she says, can transform lives.