Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : January 27th 2014 Contents A6
Guardian www.guardian.co.tt Monday, January 27, 2014
A small boat speeds in to shore
from one of the oil-drilling plat-
forms off the coast at La Brea. On
board, Jahmai Donaldson is on his
way to meet the T&T Guardian.
Surrounded by complicated-look-
ing machinery, the oil refinery, trucks
coming and going and the workforce
of T&T s biggest industry, Jahmai
now wears the uniform of an off-
shore oil worker. Hard hat, high-
visibility jacket, overalls blackened
with grime from a serious day s
work, heavy-duty boots.
He looks far more comfortable in
this attire than he did a year ago,
when he was still wearing the
brown-and-white inmate s uniform
of the Youth Training Centre (YTC)
Back then his life had reached the
kind of nadir some boys never recov-
Now, looking out to sea, he points
out Chaguaramas in the distance.
"In the evenings and sometimes
in the morning you can see
Venezuela right over there," Don-
The highs and lows of Donaldson s
life and his resurrection from angry
young criminal into hard-working,
positive, ambitious 22-year-old are
documented in a book called Wish-
ing for Wings by Debbie Jacob, a
teacher whom Jahmai credits as
being his saviour when he needed
one the most. Jacob also documented
some of her encounters with "the
lads" in her columns in the Monday
From his promising early school
days at St Benedict s College, La
Romaine, he gradually descended
into a cycle of rejecting not only
"normal" society but his own talents.
He was always intelligent, even
admitting school was too easy for
him. But, in his words, "School was
not a place to learn for me, I was
interested in material things. In pri-
mary school I would say I was a little
too confident, because I had good
marks. But I wanted good clothes
and good shoes."
He grew up in Pleasantville in a
single-parent family. His mother
worked hard to provide for her six
children, but they were as poor as
you might expect a large, working-
class Trinidad family to be.
That his siblings (he is the second
youngest) have all succeeded in life,
both academically and professionally
(his elder brother works in insurance,
his sister, whom he now lives with
in Marabella, works for local gov-
ernment) is testament to the way
his mother raised them.
But somewhere along the line, the
younger Donaldson decided he
wanted the fast track to possessions
and wealth. He left school at 16 with
just two passes---and not before
being arrested outside the school
gates for receiving a stolen mobile
In the "humble community," (as
he describes the place he grew up)
the people he saw who had the nice
shoes, cars and jewelry were the rich
people---or the criminals.
"I would see things and know the
brand. We never had those things,
but we were exposed to children who
came from wealthier families.
"And people involved in crime
lived in the area. A stone s throw
away from where I lived," Donaldson
By crime he means drugs, guns,
robbery. And in small "humble"
communities where many live in
poverty it s easy to identify those
who have fast-tracked via the profits
of crime to sit behind the wheels of
fast cars and SUVs.
While still in school, aged 13, Jah-
mai began to loiter with increasing
frequency by the house of the area s
gang leader, attracted by the vehicles
and bling. He wanted acceptance,
but at first the experienced gangsters
"They make you feel you re new
and not important...It s kind of like
brainwashing," Donaldson said.
The leader, whom Donaldson still
prefers not to name, is now dead.
But before his demise he coached
Donaldson in the art of buying and
selling drugs on the street and man-
aging a stash house. He stuck close
to the leader, avoiding the attention
of the police, until one day he decid-
ed he could go it alone. The money
he had made and the thirst for more
When he was rich enough to be
walking around "deck off in gold,"
he decided that, for his own pro-
tection, he ought to start carrying a
gun. He bought a 38 Ruger pistol
for $7,000 and "felt like people start-
ed to be more fearful. It tricked me
into a sense of power," Donaldson
He would show it off to his friends
and occasionally to customers he
needed to frighten or threaten for
One day, riding in a car with
acquaintances, he was pulled over
by police, who found the gun and
arrested everybody. He was charged
with possession of a firearm.
He pleaded guilty and was con-
victed and sentenced to three years
That arrest, while devastating at
the time to himself and his mother,
probably saved his life.
YTC: a lucky break
Debbie Jacob, who remains in
close contact with Donaldson, con-
"I don t know if he d be alive today
if he hadn t been arrested. I don t
know if any of the boys would," Jacob
said. (In her book Jacob writes about
several of the YTC boys she taught
CXC English, not just Jahmai.)
There s a sense he doesn t want
to go into the sordid details of his
past life, so whether he committed
serious violence before his arrest is
unclear, but once inside he fought
regularly; physically and verbally.
The anger and frustration of being
locked up with 18 other dangerous
boys ("some from Port-of-Spain,"
he emphasises) in a "nasty, smelly,
scary place with caged children,
plenty yelling, really harsh prison
officers making you feel less of your-
self," must have been like hell.
"It s like nothing I ve ever seen
before," he said.
He was still in the mindset of a
bad boy, and rapidly he rose to the
top of the tree of bad boys. Regularly
he was put in solitary confinement,
not least for refusing to take part in
the primary school lessons that some
of the less literate boys were made
At what point did he decide he
needed to change his life and go back
"When I realised I would need a
life after prison. I started accepting
everything for what it was. The real-
ity of the situation. I found it to be
inhumane and I was worse off than
when I had started on that path,"
The first person he cites as helping
him turn the corner was a student
teacher named Beverley Hinds, who
was doing a thesis at the prison and
teaching the primary school lessons.
She came just at the right time and
offered him the chance to help teach
less gifted children.
"For the first time in a long time
I had been given responsibility for
something. I felt I wasn t as lost as
I thought I was. That was my break,"
Bad boy gone good
Former YTC inmate Jahmai Donaldson in his new life, at work in La Brea.
PHOTO: JOSHUA SURTEES
Continued on Page A7
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