Making it right, at Rikers


Millions of tourists flock to New York City every year, attracted to the sights and sounds that make this city an international hub. And yet, when they approach LaGuardia Airport, the first visage they have of the city is a clear view of Manhattan’s skyline and Rikers Island, the world’s largest penal colony.

Rikers Island houses more than 12,000 inmates on any given day. It’s a city unto itself, and even has its own zip code and gas station. But as you can imagine, the environment is bleak.
Recently, a small group of Robin Hood supporters and staff toured Rikers Island, met with inmates, and spoke with Single Stop service providers supported by Robin Hood. The visit left many thinking about how Single Stop on Rikers Island fits into the larger picture of Robin Hood’s poverty fighting work.

“Nothing could prepare me for the feelings and emotions of experiencing that awful reality.”

Jabali Sawicki, former principal of Boys Excellence Charter School and current Robin Hood Leadership Council member, described his emotions: “I knew the statistics, but seeing that many black and brown brothers on that island weighed heavy on my heart. Nothing could prepare me for the feelings and emotions of experiencing that awful reality.”

During the visit we spoke with two inmates participating in the Robin Hood funded Single Stop program.

“Angel”, 28, is nearing the end of a one year sentence. In 2006 he was charged with stealing a vehicle and was sentenced to complete drug treatment program which he failed to complete. He has three children, ages 7, 5 and 5. His release date is quickly approaching and he hasn’t yet secured employment and he is unsure whether or not the apartment he left behind will still be available.

“Jose”, 51, will be released in April after serving a 12 month sentence for criminal sale of a controlled substance. This is Jose’s second time on Rikers; the last time was 22 years ago. While he plans to live with one of his daughters, finding work will be a challenge especially with his spotty work history and after having dropped out of high school in the 9th grade.

For Angel and Jose, Single Stop provides a leg up when they get released. They will be enrolled to received food stamps worth hundreds of dollars a month. If need be, they can tap a pro-bono lawyer to help with non-criminal legal issues. And perhaps most important, they’ll have access to a job training program to assist in finding employment upon release.

That said, after meeting Angel and Jorge, and hearing from the providers, many in attendance struggled with the challenges associated with serving this population. Much of the work Robin Hood does has an immediate benefit; people don’t starve, have shelter, and receive medical help.

At Rikers, the benefits aren’t as immediate or tangible. It can be quite a while before the benefits materialize. And sometimes, they never do. Moreover, Single Stop’s work on Rikers is expensive. On the bus ride back to Manhattan, the question was posed: “Is this the best use of Robin Hood’s dollars?”

To shed some light, let’s examine the investment as a program officer would:
First, this population—inmates—is hard to serve. All have made mistakes in life. As Angel so eloquently put it: “I was young and dumb.” All will face extreme challenges when they return to civilian life. Some will return to the sort of life that put them in Rikers in the first place. Many of these will return right back to Rikers. In fact nearly three out of every four Rikers inmates ends up back on Rikers within two years of release.

But Robin Hood doesn’t invest in what’s easy. We invest in poverty fighting. This population—hard to serve adults with multiple obstacles—is exactly the type of population Robin Hood was designed to serve. And while it may not be as elegant or inspirational as helping poor kids succeed in school — a vitally important effort—we’re helping those who are most disenfranchised and least likely to get help. And we do so for three primary reasons.

First, Single Stop provides important relief when inmates most need it—in the first few weeks post-release. By ensuring that inmates receive federal benefits, such as food assistance, shelter, and access to a job, Single Stop helps begin the transition to a more stable life. Even with these services, many inmates return to a life marred by crime, but without these services, that life is all but guaranteed.

Second: hope. As you can well imagine, hope is in short supply for inmates. Many have no reason for expectation for a better life. Single Stop, we believe, shifts that expectation. As many of us noticed during the visit, Single Stop staff on Rikers care about the participants they serve. And perhaps more important, the staff on Rikers — the warden, the corrections officers, and others — care, in large part because of Single Stop. That’s something that inmates aren’t used to. Hope is hard to quantify. It’s squishy. It doesn’t feel quite Robin Hood. But for this specific population, it’s certainly in short supply, and we believe providing some measure of hope has an impact.

A child that’s poor with little hope for the future will likely become an adult with little hope for the future

But the most important service Rikers Single Stop offers has little to do with the inmates themselves. Rather, it’s about their families. No inmate lives in isolation. As we saw during the visit, both Angel and Jose have families that rely on them on the outside. That’s true for nearly all Rikers Single Stop participants. And as we all know, poverty is inter-generational. A child that’s poor with little hope for the future will likely become an adult with little hope for the future, and then beget future generations with similar mindsets and bleak futures. It’s why changing this trajectory of despair is so crucial. Ensuring that released inmates have a roof over their heads likely means that their children have a roof over their heads. Ensuring that they have a job likely means that their children have food to eat, clothes to wear, and the means to attend and thrive in school, which we all agree is the pathway out of poverty.

What we do at Rikers Single Stop has implications—for families, for children—that extend well beyond what we provide inmates themselves. That’s why it’s an important poverty-fighting program.

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