Rikers Island: Education Denied

Apr 4, 2017 by

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. The same principle holds with students. Shower them with learning opportunities, but if they don’t care to acquire knowledge and skills, you can’t force them to try. But we must give them all a chance, no matter how much success appears a long-shot. One group cannot be blamed for lack of academic progress or job-readiness: youthful prisoners on Rikers Island.

The general public may reflexively typecast them as menaces to society and dregs of humanity for whom misplaced sympathy is symptomatic of our pathologically permissive and indulgent culture. That may be loosely accurate in individual cases, but they may still be salvageable. In most instances, the picture is far more complicated. And not uncommonly, they are innocent because they haven’t even been convicted yet.

But if there is any hope for them and for society, they must have the opportunity to get an education.  It is a pragmatic investment. Often a wonder tonic. And besides, it’s the law. And one would think that the Department of Correction would uphold it. But according to an audit by the city’s comptroller, two-thirds of youth incarcerated on Rikers Island are being denied their due and court-mandated special education services are being withheld.

Providing educational services is not a courtesy, but an obligation. It is not a favor or reward for not earning solitary confinement.  If these youth can’t get an education, it’s the rest of us who will be “in the hole.”

Many years ago, there was a plane crash in the Andes. The site was so remote and rescue so delayed, that the survivors had no alternative to cannibalizing the fatalities, or else they would themselves have perished. When people are desperate, they must resort to extreme, sometimes antisocial measures. Of course I’m not suggesting that if the Rikers youth don’t get a shot at calculus, they will consume our flesh. But in a sense they will be coerced by abject circumstances into cannibalizing society in a figurative way

Insisting that education be made available to youthful Rikers Island prisoners does not make one “soft on crime” or an advocate for the guilty. What it signifies is recognition that only through education can many of these inmates ever have a prospect of being productive, stable and assimilated when they’re released.

When people have been socially isolated and are economically paralyzed and stuck in perpetual stigma, the agitation and despondency is a “perfect storm” for the wild striking out of human nature. If they’re totally bereft, their futility will be uncontainable.

Department of Correction: correct yourself ! There’s more than enough tears to go around already!

Ron Isaac

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