One afternoon last month on Rikers Island, a small group of detainees sat in an otherwise bare cell block decorated with streamers, waiting to deliver inspirational speeches about the future.
“I’m a little nervous,” said one detainee, Dashawn, as he stepped in front of a small audience, holding his speech on two pieces of paper in his hands.
Dashawn and 18 other detainees were graduating from a three-credit criminal justice course at LaGuardia Community College, offered in partnership with the nonprofit College Way. The graduates asked that Gothamist not use their full names because their cases are still being processed.
The course began this summer, just as the city Department of Correction was cutting many other classes and programs for detainees. It survived because everyone involved worked pro bono, so it cost the DOC nothing.
Dashawn quickly found his voice to share a message of hope: Your life is “not over” due to being in jail, he said.
In a speech that quoted spiritual theorist Eckhart Tolle, Dashawn said he was committed to his intellectual development and building generational wealth for his family.
LaGuardia criminal justice professor and course director Cory Rowe said she and other volunteers saw a “profound” shift in the students across the course of the program.
“I think it is just a testament to the power of education,” she said.
The course teaches detainees both practical law and self-development tools, such as meditation and mindfulness, over three months of weekly lessons. It’s the first college program of any kind to be offered at Rikers’ George R. Vierno Center — a housing area that has very little programming, in part because the men detained there are charged with serious felonies, said Rowe.
The graduates said the course was transformational.
Many said they now intend to go to college. One man who was recently released has already visited CUNY’s LaGuardia Community College and enrolled to get his GED, according to Rowe.
The DOC confirmed that, due to the program’s success in engaging 19 detainees to pass, a second semester will be offered in the women’s jail, starting in March.
In a statement, DOC Commissioner Louis Molina said those who further their education while incarcerated are less likely to return to jail and more likely to find employment on release.
“This is a proven crime-fighting strategy and I thank CUNY for their partnership as we expand this program to other parts of Rikers,” he said.
Grandmother’s home-cooked meal marks pivotal moment
It’s been three months since $17 million worth of programming provided to Rikers detainees by community organizations was eliminated due to city budget cuts. The DOC says it insourced much of the programming, but criminal justice advocates say many detainees are now left isolated and idle.
The course made some detainees the first in their family to attend college.
One LaGuardia volunteer’s grandmother spent the day before the graduation ceremony cooking six trays of fried and barbecue chicken and four trays of mac and cheese to mark the moment, after students requested a home-cooked meal.
Volunteers arrived hours early to hang black-and-yellow streamers across a two-story housing area that has been converted into an educational space. There was no sound system, but as the men walked in, the LaGuardia team hummed “Pomp and Circumstance.”
One by one, each of the graduates stood up to give their “master plan” — a three-minute speech about their plans for the next five, 10 and 20 years, and how to get there.
Rayshawn told the group — which included Francis Torres, DOC’s deputy commissioner of programs and community partnerships — about his passion for the culinary arts and how he plans to open a restaurant chain.
Tristan said he plans to go to LaGuardia and then start his own marijuana dispensary.
The men spoke of attributes they had learned while taking the class, such as self-discipline, positive energy and gratitude. Many thanked their grandmothers and mothers.
“I felt like a proud parent watching the reactions of the Rikers administration there,” said LaGuardia’s Rowe.
Correction officers give words of encouragement
In a workbook designed by LaGuardia student volunteer Amy Chi, detainees learn about evidence and appeals alongside tips on creating healthy mental habits, ancient Chinese proverbs and quotes from Lauryn Hill and Marcus Garvey.
Chi’s introduction urges the men to read, write and self-educate. “Don’t just serve time, let time serve you,” it states.
The men were using the information to better understand their cases and rights, Rowe said. With the help of what he’d learned through the course, one man was filing a motion on his own behalf to challenge the five years he’s been held awaiting trial. Another asked a judge if he could read his graduation speech at a recent sentencing hearing, according to Rowe.
The men also received a booklet compiling articles on topics including how to start a business or nonprofit, how to start an urban farm, and how to get various licenses and certifications.
Chi said she was moved to hear the men’s speeches and to see their nerves.
“At first I thought, ‘they’ve been through a lot of situations, why would they be nervous about this?'” she said. “But then you realize they’re being very vulnerable and they’re actually being nervous in such a positive way. They’re testifying for themselves in a positive light.”
Rowe said one of the most poignant moments of the course was seeing correction officers become invested in the men’s success, sometimes interjecting to offer praise in the middle of class. At the ceremony, one correction officer got a certificate herself and gave her own speech, telling the men she was proud of them.
Dashawn said his plan is to one day open a dog kennel called “Dayday’s Blue Ribbon Bullies,” using a nickname he calls himself.
“I won’t serve time, I’ll make time serve me,” he said as he finished his speech. The other graduates, course volunteers and Rikers staff cheered.