Rikers Island is a fearsome place, in all respects the opposite of living the dream. Located just off of Queens, the enormous jail complex houses adult defendants who can’t make bail before their trials, some individuals convicted of misdemeanors, and sadly, a significant number of juveniles. Some of these juveniles, who are as young as 16, are serving their terms, while others await serious charges involving guns, drugs and violence.
In the spring of 2009, I was working with a small group of law students trying to improve conditions at Rikers Island. Many prison reform advocates focus their work on “prisons”, where inmates convicted of long sentences are housed, rather than “jails”. There is some logic to this- since most people incarcerated in jails are there only temporarily, the fight over better living conditions is more appropriately waged over long-term prisons, which are mostly in upstate New York, far from the inmates’ families. However, Rikers Island is, for many youths, their introduction to the criminal justice system, and the awful experience that follows profoundly impacts their young adulthood.
We sought access to the Rikers juvenile facilities in the form of a legal workshop, which was approved in the summer of 2009 . That fall, Fordham Law students began making the trek out to Rikers on Sundays to work with 16 and 17 year old kids. The stories from these sessions abound.
While some kids never opened up to us, others loved our program, which involved group discussions about legal issues ranging from gun control (in light of the Plaxico Burress shooting) to cannibalism at sea, to a fantastic mock trial the last week of the program. Some of these kids were sharp, savvy and charismatic, full of potential but for the path they had gone down. Many peppered me with questions about college, law school and making money during and after each workshop. One even explained to me how to fake collapsing in fear in order to pull a gun and shoot someone in self-defense. Let’s put it this way: there was never a dull moment.
In contrast, these kids are utterly bored most of their days, stuck in their dreary, 50-bed dorm rooms, with no privacy whatsoever. Even though our presentations sometimes fell well short of stellar, we were some of the only entertainment and intellectual stimulation these kids would have all week. Best of all, this program has the full support of the Rikers Island staff, which has been suffering from budget cuts, and would rather not leave its most vulnerable population with so much idle time.
The program continued this past spring, while I was away in Liberia, and is now set to start up for the fall. We are looking for young professionals (legal background not necessary) to come with us a few Sundays this fall. While continuity is the best way to build up a relationship with these kids, even committing to two Sundays can be helpful. Fluent Spanish speakers would be helpful to deal with a group of juveniles that speak little English, and often feel left out of our discussions.
If you are looking for a way to volunteer with young people who will really appreciate it, please consider joining us this fall. Email LTDdotorg@gmail.com, and I’ll put you in touch with the individuals running the program for this fall. I’ll be attending on Sundays this November myself.