Can A Prison Education Turn Someone Inside, Out?


America’s first high school at a correctional facility, located at New York's Rikers Island, offers young offenders a second chance to go straight. But should they be in jail in the first place?

Austin H. MacCormick Island Academy, a high school in New York City, is an educator’s dream.

There are only 80 students in attendance, so the overcrowding that plagues most other city school districts doesn’t exist here.

The halls are spotless and orderly. There is no dawdling. Students move from one class to another with precision. They are respectful. The walls showcase pupils’ writing projects and Student of the Month honors. The trophy case boasts the students’ sports achievements, most notably those of the weightlifting and basketball teams. In addition to traditional classes such as math, English and science, there are vocational studies like culinary arts and barber shop. The students are on a tight schedule: classes begin at 8 a.m. sharp. There is a low absentee rate, so truancy is not a problem.

Every student wears a crisp khaki shirt and pants, the uniform that is standard issue to all inmates.

The MacCormick Island Academy, named for a former assistant director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons whose 1931 study set the standard for prison education, is where New York City’s male juvenile offenders, housed at the Rikers Island jail complex attend mandatory classes. The school, under the purview of the city's Department of Education, opened in 1985 as the first high school in the nation to be located in a correctional facility. Island Academy is one of nine educational facilities at Rikers, which includes the Rose M. Singer Center, known to insiders as “Rosie’s,” where female inmates and detainees attend classes.

While educators, law enforcement officials and social workers all agree that education plays a critical role in offering young offenders the life skills that will make them employable and likely keep them out of jail, no city or state agency in New York tracks whether the 16- and 17-year-olds who have attended classes at Rikers recycle through the jail later in their life.

But anecdotal evidence, in the form of success stories and evidence provided by school officials and advocates, suggests that the Island Academy has played a critical role in turning around the lives of troubled young people.

New York is one of only three states that automatically prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds in adult court. State law mandates high school until the age of 17, so jailhouse education is compulsory.

For many young inmates, getting into Island Academy represents the end of a tragic journey that begins with being born to teenage parents—some of whom will wind up in jail before their kids reach middle school—and includes involvement with using and selling drugs, or involvement with a gang that is often the only real family they’ve ever known.

The last leg of the trip includes a bus ride, courtesy of the New York City Department of Correction, through the bland streets of Elmhurst, Queens, heading north to the island. The landscape is dotted with delis and housing developments. The bus leaves the mainland, heading over a tiny bridge that is nondescript and ordinary, lacking the iconic stature of the Brooklyn or Verrazano. The landscape is cold, devoid of character.

Then, inmates arrive at their new address: 1800 Hazen Street.

Once they are incarcerated, the inmates, who must be sentenced to less than a year in order to stay at Rikers, and the detainees (youths who are unable to post bail or bond) attend classes five days a week. Eighty percent of the inmates attending Rikers’ high schools read at the sixth-grade level, and 41% to 55% are special-education students, according to the New York City Department of Education.

But a stint at Island Academy isn’t the dead end that is the epilogue of many prison tales. In fact, the facility affords many young people a second chance.

Some inmates at Island Academy can train in a restaurant-quality kitchen and leave jail with a certificate in food preparation. I recently watched as a group of inmates learned to prepare shrimp and lime quesadillas. These inmates, non-violent offenders, must get special permission to work in the kitchen, where they use knives and other sharp instruments not accessible to most inmates. In May, female detainees at Rikers’ Horizon Academy prepared food in a “Top Chef”-style competition judged by a former dean of the French Culinary Institute.

Anyone Need a Haircut?

Other Rikers inmates earn their federal OSHA certification, allowing them to inspect workplaces for safety and health compliance. Some inmates work to become barbers. “Does anyone need a haircut?,” one teacher joked to a group recently observing the class. The barber class is another example of where using sharp instruments becomes an issue. Scissors are not available to felons, even after they leave jail, and ex-cons have a hard time securing a haircutting license.

There also is a class in hydroponic gardening, and an outdoor green space maintained by detainees in partnership with the New York Horticultural Society.

Still, there are clear indications that Island Academy is not your typical city school. Correction officers are hall monitors. Bathroom breaks are limited and tightly guarded. Windows do not open. There is no lunch room. No organized recess. No high school musical? although there is enough drama to propel young lives into a downward spiral.

Jeremy Smith knows about drama. He wound up at Rikers after getting involved with a gang and selling drugs. Smith says he made at least six trips through Central Booking and barely attended classes at his high school, Adlai E. Stevenson in the Bronx.

“Education just wasn’t fun for me,” he recalls. But watching a friend die in the street was even less fun, an experience he says “led me to see that I have to do something else or I’m going to wind up the same way.”

Smith spent one month at Island Academy, where he concentrated on studying for his GED, or high school equivalency diploma. Upon his release, he was mandated to become a member of the nonprofit Friends of Island Academy (FOIA),which is dedicated to helping juvenile offenders released from Rikers forge a successful plan for a life outside of jail that includes education and employment.

The FOIA team is helping Smith carve out a plan for attending college, while he works at a local McDonald’s restaurant. Since becoming a member of FOIA, Smith says he’s gotten the bug for politics, and even became involved in “Drop the Rock” advocacy, working to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws. He is now preparing college applications and hopes to begin studying political science in the spring.

Another member of FOIA, Devon Stephen, 18, says gang life led him down the path to Rikers. “I was in sixth grade when I joined a gang,” he says. And from sixth to 12th grade, he had “a straight gang-bang life.” Growing up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Stephen says he was drawn to gangs because, “the people in my neighborhood had a certain lifestyle that looked good to me, and I wanted it, too.” By working with the FOIA social workers, Stephen was able to become an FOIA youth leader, serving as an example to other former inmates. He's on track to soon obtain his GED.

One FOIA member writes anonymously in the agency’s “The Realest” newsletter: “I see now my mistakes from being in a gang and it has made me stronger and smarter. I benefited greatly from leaving the gang and I am now a proud father, earn money legally and have not been arrested for over two years. I hope that people who deserve better in their lives read this and learn from my experience.”

There are other success stories.

Bernard Skelton, who was a member of FOIA from 1992-1994, is now the agency’s “fatherhood specialist,” helping young dads reconnect with their children upon their release and aiding them in forging the bonds that many of them never knew with their own parents.

One Rikers detainee, Angel Suarez, who spent 14 months at the jail and obtained his GED there, was awarded a four-year scholarship to Ohio University in 2006.

Most of the inmates and detainees spend their time, in fact, preparing to take a test called the predictor, which will determine whether they have the skills necessary to pass the GED.

Graduation Ceremony

Those who obtain their GED behind bars merit a graduation ceremony, complete with keynote speaker and valedictorian. The occasion offers inmates an opportunity to see what can happen if they stay committed to turning their lives around and staying out of jail.

For most young offenders, however, a juvenile arrest is the beginning, not the end, of a cycle of exposure to the criminal justice system. According to the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, of the 12,009 16- and 17-year-olds arrested in New York City between January 2000 and June 2004 (the most recent data available) who did not receive a prison sentence, 80% were rearrested for a felony or misdemeanor. Sixty-two percent were rearrested for felony offenses, and 36% were rearrested for violent felonies. For the same time period, of the 1,256 youthful offenders who were released after serving time for a felony offense, 84% were rearrested for a crime; 69% were rearrested for a felony and 41% were rearrested for a violent felony.

Many educators are convinced that with guidance and incentive to stay in school, the young offenders would not have wound up at Rikers in the first place. And many think New York’s laws treating teenagers as adults are counterproductive. “We all know that 16 is much too young to be treated like an adult,” says Tim Lisante, a former principal of Austin MacCormick Island Academy who now leads the city’s alternative high schools, including those at Rikers.

“Nothing is customized for teens in the adult system,” adds Lisante, who is a deputy superintendent with the Department of Education

The number of young offenders at Rikers has dropped to 13,000 from 22, 000 over the past 20 years, according to Christine Pahigian, executive director of Friends of Island Academy, a private, nonprofit agency with no connection to the Department of Education. FOIA assists inmates, like Smith and Stephen, who have been detained or incarcerated at Rikers. “As a society’s needs change, so must its laws,” Pahigian says.

The critical law is New York's Juvenile Offender Act, which was enacted in 1978 in response to the public outcry over the seemingly light five-year sentence handed down to a 15-year-old who killed two people in nine days.

Pahigian and her team of social workers, juvenile justice experts and volunteers help former inmates and detainees with GED prep, job placement or the employment skills they’ll need as they re-enter society. She also supports a “Raise the Age” campaign, which advocates for the case of any accused offender under 18 to be handled by family court. “The key to success,” she says, “is connection.”

Forging Connections

Pahigian says the former inmates who become members of FOIA upon their release from Rikers must forge connections: “to society, to the staff, to their peers.”

According to Pahigian, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent decision to merge the city’s Administration for Children’s Services with the city’s Department of Juvenile Justice is a step in the right direction. She says the move will help introduce a protocol that is more attentive to the needs of young offenders. The merger is designed to help develop a strategy that will place juvenile and youthful offenders on the path toward staying in school and finding employment. And that’s the key to staying out of jail, says Pahigian.

While it’s still too early to measure any real progress, Pahigian is convinced that joining the two agencies will help her members cement relationships they need in order to have a successful re-entry to society. And connections and friendships will help them to stay committed to the education programs she knows lead to a better life.

Pahigian knows this, she says, because there is only an 8% to 16% recidivism rate among FOIA members over the agency’s 25 years.

Still, some don’t need numbers to know that education works. Paul Volponi, who taught literacy at Rikers for six years, says most inmates gain a lot from going to high school while in jail.

“In the midst of a jail horror, school is familiar; it’s something that they know,” he says.

During his time teaching, Volponi saw only a handful of kids return to Rikers. For most of them, he says, a GED is a fresh start: “I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t believe education won’t keep a kid out of jail.”

And Volponi dismisses the idea that some youthful offenders crave a life of crime. “Very few of the kids who come through Rikers want to be Tony Montana from Scarface. In most cases,” he says, “they’ve had bad dreams peddled to them by society.”

The bad dream can quickly turn into a nightmare when a young offender isn’t emotionally prepared to be treated like an adult, says Smith. “It’s unfair to treat a kid as an adult,” he says. “Who decided that?”

Smith says he’ll stay out of trouble now. If nothing else, he’s sure fear will keep him straight — fear of seeing another friend die, the fear of dying himself. And the fear that one day, if he falters, he could have as his permanent address 1800 Hazen Street, which sits on the dead end side of a little bridge, the place called Rikers Island.

Lion Calandra, a former member of The New York Daily News editorial board, is a 2010 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Reporting Fellow. She can be reached at

Read Lion’s Reporter Notebook here.

Picture via Flickr.

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