Monday, 2 May 2011

Bars To Education: Incarcerated Youth Already Saddled With School Problems

Almost 90 percent of the city's incarcerated youth are re-arrested by the time they're 28, and the local prisons have proven to be much more successful at teaching criminal behavior than classroom subjects. NY1's Education reporter Lindsey Christ filed this first report in a week-long series on reforms underway to rescue jailhouse schools. For most of the city's incarcerated youth, their education has fallen off-track long before they arrive on Rikers Island. "I wasn't really in school. I was chilling in the neighborhood, just doing things I wasn't supposed to do," says former Rikers inmate Devon Stephens. Although incarceration meant mandatory class attendance, Stephens says he was watching his back more than learning. "There are fights in class, it's jail. Everywhere you go, there are fights, because it's jail," says Stephens. "If you go to jail, you're going to become worse than how you were on the outside on the streets." More than 12,000 New York City students a year go to school behind bars. It's a disorganized system, with 53 school sites run by the city and more than 100 by the state. Schools were opened haphazardly, often in response to lawsuits. Despite major national and municipal education reforms, the schools in jails have been largely forgotten. At Rikers, the average student reads at a fifth-grade level and many of the 16- to 21-year-old inmates are illiterate. Almost 50 percent have special education needs, and many classified as emotionally disturbed. "The system compounds the trauma that already existed," says Cara Chambers of the Legal Aid Society. "In many circumstances, you're looking at children who have struggled for years and years with undiagnosed disabilities with limited access to high-quality education and then you put them into facilities that also are not capable of providing them with the high-quality education that they need and deserve." Eventually, the young people's suffering ripples out the communities they come from. "It makes all of us less safe. We are basically taking young people incarcerating them and making them worse, so that when they transition back into society we're all at greater risk," says Gabrielle Prisco of the Corrections Association Juvenile Justice Project. It's an issue that hits home especially hard in the city's black and Hispanic communities. Blacks and Hispanics make up 70 percent of students in the overall school system, and an overwhelming 95 percent of students in jail. "Children come to jail with a long history of not receiving the education that they should get," says Mary Lynne Werlwas of the Prisoners Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society. "The schools have failed them, the teachers have failed them. It's not just a problem of incarcerated youth. It's a problem of the education given to poor people and people of color that is at the root of this problem." Yet some officials say they are finally ready to face this problem head-on

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