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LIFE AFTER PRISON

‘Don’t look at someone’s glory if you don’t know their story’

From drug smuggler to tour guide, Debbie has transformed her life to be an inspiration to others

Published:Sunday | April 23, 2023 | 1:22 AMJanet Silvera - Senior Gleaner Writer

Debbie Baker and her 21-year-old son Carlton Jenkins in a playful mood.
Debbie Baker and her 21-year-old son Carlton Jenkins in a playful mood.

WESTERN BUREAU: At age 20, Debbie Baker became involved with a group of drug smugglers, quickly moving up the ranks. By age 21, she was serving 10 years in a Panamanian prison for drug trafficking. Baker was second in command of the drug ring,...

WESTERN BUREAU:

At age 20, Debbie Baker became involved with a group of drug smugglers, quickly moving up the ranks. By age 21, she was serving 10 years in a Panamanian prison for drug trafficking.

Baker was second in command of the drug ring, giving instructions and making big moves, when something went wrong with one of their shipments in Panama. Automatically, she was sent to fix it.

“But I got busted. Somebody messed up. I was only supposed to make the situation right, not transport the drugs, but the young mule (drug mule) messed up,” she told The Sunday Gleaner last week.

Today, the 49-year-old single mother, who is renowned as a professional in the hospitality sector, is convinced her imprisonment was God's answers to her prayers, because she wanted to get out of that life.

“I kept saying this is not what I want for my life. I wanted out, but I couldn't walk because I knew too much,” she revealed in a no-holds-barred interview recently, in the presence of her 21-year-old son, Carlton Jenkins, who gave his mom his stamp of approval.

Baker has lived with this secret for 28 years, a hush-hush that her biological mother and sister would prefer she not disclose. However, Baker, who is a bilingual tour guide and operator, who learnt Spanish in prison and is fluent in the language, wants to share her story, with the hope of inspiring others.

“I dove into the Latin culture while in prison, was a model prisoner who made history by being the first foreigner to dance on their national television. I was into folklore, becoming a top performing inmate,” she recounted.

MODEL PRISONER

The Mandeville, Manchester-born native saw her sentence slashed in half, spending only five years in jail, owing to her outstanding contribution to the process of rehabilitation. “I didn't blame anyone for my incarceration. I said 'Father, what's the best can come out of this situation' and that's how I dealt with it,” she shared.

She never expected to be pardoned; however, because of her good behaviour, she was placed in a half-house. Twenty-five per cent of the prison population were Jamaicans, who felt she was wasting time learning Spanish and embedding herself into the fabric of the society.

“Panama helped me and moulded me into the lady I am today,” she stated, adding that at age 21 she did not know what she wanted in life, she only knew she had made a mistake and being in prison was not it.

“For me it was more of a rehabilitation. It brought me back to who I am supposed to be and what I am supposed to be doing,” she shared.

Baker condemns statements such as people deserve what they get when they go to prison, because sometimes their circumstances are so compelling it dictates their journey.

“I always tell people, you don't look at someone's glory if you don't know their story. I have hidden most of my life what I have done and who I have become,” she stated.

Her son, she said, has been encouraging her to tell her story, owing to the positive impact he has witnessed that she has had on the lives of others. “He kept saying, 'mom, your story is your story and it is what makes you who you are',” she said.

Baker has sat in rooms with others belittling deportees and when she tries to defend them, she is asked why. “It hurts because they are somebody, too. That was me 20-odd years ago, and if I am to tell them I am a deportee, how would they look at me now,” she stated.

Baker is urging deportees not to blame others as if the world is against them, “because everybody is not obligated to help you or put you somewhere”.

She wants those without a family who feel they are at the end of the road to call her. “I am a support team,” she declared.

Baker accepts that many companies will not employ deportees and so she has never put that declaration on a resume.

“Some people just want a chance to start over and this is where Jamaica lacks that. You come back, you go from the airport to the detention centre, you do your paperwork and they let you out to fend for yourself in the world,” she stated.

When she returned to Jamaica she opted not to return to her family and instead went to friends in Hanover. “I didn't want anything to happen to make me reunite with my past,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.

Weeks later, she reunited with her family, though.

LETTING GO OF THE BURDEN

Baker returned to Jamaica at the same time when RIU, the first Spanish hotel, was being built and owing to her fluency in the language, was employed immediately.

“During the interview I was speaking to everyone in the room in Spanish and they decided I was suited in entertainment and not reception, because I had the room in stitches,” she recalled.

She credits RIU for introducing her to the hospitality industry. She worked there for two years until she became pregnant with her son. “But the hotel wouldn't let me go. I was scheduled to work four hours in the morning and four hours in the evening, so that I was kept off my feet, but leaving the job was not an option.”

She quit the job eventually, but went back after her son was born.

It was easy for her to find work with the Spanish developers and her next job was as a translator with the builder at Grand Palladium.

Baker got her first taste of tour guiding with Holiday Services, where she spent two years.

Today, she partners with MAXI Taxi Tours as a freelancer, and Caribbean Cruise Shipping and Tours (CCS).

She is also a farmer and makes skincare products, and there is no one prouder of her than her son Carlton.

“I am very proud of her, I am elated for her. I feel like this has unlocked something for her, something that she has been holding on to. This has also allowed her to accept that she doesn't need to be hard on herself,” Carlton told The Sunday Gleaner.

Letting go of this burden, he said, has taken a lot of pressure off her shoulders.

“Her past is her past, you can't really scold someone or be mad at someone because of what happened in the past. You just have to look at what happened and say, 'how can I make this better?' And I feel as though my mom has righted her wrong,” he said, adding that his mom is not judgemental, accepting people for who they are.

She has taught her son how to be a gentleman, which is one of the things she adopted from the Latin culture.

Whenever her hands are full, Carlton assists with the tours for visitors to the island.

janet.silvera@gleanerjm.com