At Rikers Island, Studying Is Possible Too

Harold Quito, 22, spoke about how he was able to earn an electrical worker certification while he served his sentence. (Photo via El Diario)

Harold Quito, 22, spoke about how he was able to earn an electrical worker certification while he served his sentence. (Photo via El Diario)

More than 1,700 minority youths, among them a high number of Hispanics between the ages of 16 and 21 serving time for different crimes at the Rikers Island prison, are looking for a way to rehabilitate and reinsert themselves into society once they regain their freedom.

“In the seven months I spent at Rikers, I got a certification that qualifies me as an electrician, which now allows me to work as a private contractor,” said Harold Quito, 22, who shared his experience with El Diario.

Quito, a New Yorker of Ecuadorean parents, is one of the young people enrolled in the new program promoted by the New York City Department of Education (DOE) alongside the Department of Correction to help inmates make the most of the time they must spend in prison by continuing their education or learning a trade.

The educational program for young inmates seeks to show a positive side to the city’s prison system, which faces a wave of criticism due to its high violence rates, overcrowding and elevated maintenance costs.


“At the school I went to inside Rikers Island, I received a wide network of services and resources that allowed me to grow academically and to concentrate on my transition back into the community,” said Quito, who also took classes to finish high school.

According to the DOE, in the 2015-16 school year, 1,710 students enrolled in the program, while 2,516 enrolled in the 2013-14 year. Youths in prison are the system’s most vulnerable population and, for that reason, reforms are being promoted.

Data provided by the DOE states that the East River Academy (ERA) located on Rikers Island, “has adopted reforms to ensure that these students receive equitable services and education.”

One of these recent changes is the way parent conferences are conducted at ERA: “Student-led conferences” are a new concept aimed at elevating academic standards, promoting parent participation and increasing the students’ responsibilities.

“We are committed to offering high-quality education to all our students. With the support of the DOE, students enrolled at East River Academy are pursuing a high school diploma or equivalent, and receiving technical training in culinary arts, carpentry, electrical technology or information sciences,” said Chancellor of Education Carmen Fariña.

The schools chancellor added that other initiatives have been expanded concurrently. “Specific investments have been made to improve teaching and increase emotional motivational services, as well as parent commitment, in order to give the teens a learning environment that ensures a successful transition to college or a career.”

Alfredo Castro, who is Dominican and whose 20-year-old son Jesús is currently detained at Rikers, describes the program as “very interesting, especially because it motivates students to move forward and to believe in themselves.”

“We value the DOE’s initiative because, with the help they give teens in matters of education, we see that they can change the course of their lives and become upstanding people,” insisted Castro, who works at an auto parts store and lives in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn.

For her part, Melissa Hernández, a social worker at ERA, explained that the youths learn the same curriculum as the rest of the students in the city’s school system. They also receive emotional counseling and training in other skills, as well as assistance to find work and even to obtain credits to pursue a college degree.

Hernández works with young people between the ages of 18 and 21, and said that, inside Rikers, the program is met with a range of attitudes.

“Some kids are very enthusiastic about reforming themselves and studying, and others offer a little resistance, but we work with them to give them motivation and they eventually change and realize that what we are offering them will help them.”

Finally, the civil servant said that they monitor the youths after they leave the system by contacting the agencies to which they have been referred to confirm that they are following the goals they set for themselves.

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