This story is part of Hard Lessons, the NYCity News Service’s look at what city schools have learned from the pandemic.

The salutatorian for the June graduating class at the East River Academy, a school for incarcerated people on Rikers Island, used his speech to express his gratitude — and make a plea.

James thanked his teachers, who he said made him feel human during his time in jail, according to a transcript from the ceremony. He also implored Louis Molina, the city Department of Correction commissioner, to do more to ensure detainees could make it to classrooms each day.

After starting at East River Academy, James — whose full name was not given in the transcript — was moved to a different Rikers housing area where he couldn’t access any of the island’s five school sites. At other times, lockdowns kept James and other detainees in their cells during class hours.

“It was like we lost a connection to our humanity,” James said in his speech of the days he wasn’t able to attend classes.

The transcript of James’s speech was verified by a former administrator who attended the graduation. James, who graduated from East River with a GED at age 27 and is now being held at an upstate prison on a burglary conviction, could not be reached for comment for this story.

State law requires that the Department of Correction and Department of Education provide school to young adults in custody who request it, and that students receive a minimum of three daily hours of education during the week. As of March 2019, that group has included those up to age 25.

At Rikers — which holds those awaiting trial and sentencing, and those convicted of crimes with sentences of one year or less — about 1,100 incarcerated people from 18 to 25 were admitted to the jail in the last three months of 2022, according to a recent DOC report

According to a DOE representative, only about 46% of the roughly 200 students enrolled in East River were attending daily as of November. The department has not published the required report that would document this figure. 

In the 2019 fiscal year, the average daily attendance in DOC school programs was 77, according to an agency report. It crept down to 60 the next year, and then 11 in 2021. In the 2022 fiscal year, which ended in June, the average attendance was 32. 

For those who try to enroll in and regularly attend school, lockdowns, restrictions on which housing areas can access DOE programs, and a lack of correction officer escorts have kept students out of class.

Both the DOE and DOC declined to comment on the impact of lockdowns on attendance and did not share any specific strategies to raise enrollment or improve the current attendance rate.

At a February Board of Correction meeting, Molina said that “flooding our facility with meaningful targeted programming and educational services will decrease idleness and in turn reduce violence.” But critics say that his department has fallen short on delivering on these services.  

Crystal Baker-Burr, director of the Education Project at the nonprofit Bronx Defenders legal services group, said that she had 13 clients who had filled out the necessary paperwork to go to school but that they had not been escorted to the school site to enroll.

School leadership “gave us a beautiful PowerPoint presentation about how they would be tailoring programs, but I don’t think the Department of Education is putting enough pressure on the Department of Correction to comply with mandates,” Baker-Burr said. 

She argued that those mandates required Rikers detainees to be able to attend school regardless of where they were being housed. The Department of Education explained it slightly differently, and said anyone could be moved to a Rikers unit with access to DOE programming. 

But some of Baker-Burr’s clients say moving to another facility presents safety risks they are not willing to take, like sleeping in an open dorm setting with a lot more people. She says her clients ask themselves: “How important is my education? Am I willing to risk my life for it?”

Multiple roadblocks

To attend school, detainees file an opt-in form. But there was no system in place to record whether school-eligible detainees were offered the form, according to a 2017 comptroller’s audit that called the system to make school available “weak.” 

Even if the proper forms are filled out, and students are housed in school-accessible areas, getting to classes is not guaranteed.

“Not everyone who intends to go to school is getting the escort that they need to make it,” said Felipe Franco, a Correction Board member who regularly raises concerns about disrupted schedules. “I assume that’s because they don’t have the staff or because they are in lockdown.”

When he visited Rikers in October, the turnout was just “a handful of students,” Franco said.

In September, the first month of the new school year, there were 64 lockdowns at the complex housing most school-eligible detainees. Lockdowns — designed to reduce violence, according to Rikers officials — also make it difficult “to provide people in custody with mandated services,” including school, according to a Board of Correction report.

Staffing shortages have been a major concern, especially since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Officer escorts, like the ones who take detainees to school, say they now have “expanded responsibilities” making it difficult for them to consistently fulfill that role, Jacqueline Sherman, a Correction Board member, said at a board meeting.

“Staffing and violence issues have drowned out discussion of any basic provision of services,” said Martha King, the former executive director of the board. “I don’t know why we would assume they’re getting to school.” 

Detainees who can’t enroll in school also lose the opportunity to work with a “transition specialist,” a guidance counselor or social worker who helps students identify goals and checks in with them for six months after release.

A chance to thrive

At Board of Correction meetings, members have stressed how classes are important for mental health and passing the time for incarcerated people.

Only 28% of 2019-20 East River Academy students were reading at high school level. Baker-Burr sees time on Rikers as an opportunity for students with low literacy levels to catch up toward their diplomas. That will give them more chances to advance once they’re released, she added.

Increasing the number of detainees attending school could decrease the overall number of people in jail in the long term. A 2018 study “found that inmates participating in correctional education programs were 28% less likely to recidivate when compared with inmates who did not participate.”

School also helps detainees recognize their potential and plan for their future.

“We help students identify what they have been through in the past so they can harness the power to reshape their future,” one East River Academy teacher wrote in a description of a class project on Donors Choose, where instructors can seek financial support for purchasing class resources.

At a September Board of Correction meeting, Basimata Simmons spoke of her daughter, Mia, 24, who has been at Rikers since 2019 on a manslaughter charge. Her next court date is in January, according to DOC records.

Simmons mentioned that her daughter had received a four-year scholarship to college. “I want to see her thrive with this new opportunity,” she said.

Edyson Julio, who says he receives funding from the Department of Correction to teach a course at Rikers called “The Philosophy of Us: Hip-Hop, the Streets and Our Futures,” said learning while behind bars, whether aimed at a diploma or not, was always beneficial.

“There’s basically no scenario in life where being educated or being smart makes it worse,” he said. “It always makes it better.”

David Westenhaver and Mark Banchereau contributed.


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