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For John Jay Students, an Education In Reality, Humanity at Rikers Island (free article)


After living in Senegal for a decade, Fama Thiam, 27, a participant in the Department of  Correction’s program for prospective Correction Officers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, returned to the U.S. and found her future career path in an unusual way: through television.

“The first channel that I looked at was the Investigation Discovery channel. It was my favorite,” she said at a May 3 luncheon for graduates of the Cadet Education, Empowerment and Development for Success [CEEDS] program.

Nursing Not For Her

Ms. Thiam was born in the city but went to live in Senegal in 2002. When she came back to the U.S., at her father’s urging, she enrolled in the City University of New York’s Borough of Manhattan Community College to become a nurse: and she hated every second of it.

“Sometimes when I was sitting in class, my body was there was but my mind wasn’t,” she said.

After struggling through a chemistry course, she decided to pursue a liberal-arts degree. A friend recommended that she transfer to John Jay, where she found out about the CEEDS program.

After being accepted, her classes learning about the criminal-justice system were worlds apart from her nursing courses: they excited her. But that enthusiasm didn’t stop her from being worried the first time she entered Rikers Island, where the cadets trained for about two months.

‘This is Real’

“I was nervous, especially when they closed the door. I was like, ‘Man, this is where I want to be?’” she said. “It was like, ‘this is real, I used to see this on TV but now I’m here.’ ”

John Jay student Boubacar Barry, 26, an immigrant from Guinea, felt a similar apprehension.

“Being new to the kind of environment—going from school straight to Rikers—sometimes you feel like ‘I’m really here? I’m around people who committed crimes.’ But you don’t know people’s stories,” he said.

Mr. Barry, who came to the U.S. more than eight years ago and interned at the Manhattan Borough President’s office during his tenure at John Jay, said he always knew he wanted to work in the criminal-justice field but wasn’t sure what path to take until he entered college.

“I wanted to change people’s lives,” he said.   

Ms. Thiam lamented the bad rap Correction Officers received, particularly from the media.

‘A Different World’

“They don’t show the relationship between the inmates and Correction Officers—they only talk about someone getting slashed, or feces, or being stabbed,” she said. “Some people might think this is not a good job…but once you’re there, it’s a different world.”

CEEDS was launched more than three years ago as a joint collaboration between the DOC and John Jay College. Martin Horn, a Distinguished Lecturer in Corrections who ran both the DOC and the Department of Probation from 2003 to 2009, said that the initiative was meant to “attract to the DOC a more-well-educated group of officers who have greater potential to become future leaders.”

Students learned about the rights of prisoners, the structure of the criminal-justice system, and ethics, according to Mr. Horn.

The most important lesson he was taught, Mr. Barry said, was patience.

“Before I used to view people in jail as people who happened to do bad things so they’ve gotta face the consequences, but now I realize that even though they did something bad, you have to treat them like human beings,” he said. “Sometimes they piss you off and get you mad, but you always learn how to move on. That’s the first thing you need to learn: not to take things personally.”

Mr. Barry has applied for the Correction Academy and was awaiting a naturalization interview with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Tamar Montuma, a Student Support Specialist who works with the cadets, said that some immigrant students who participated in the program were not eligible to work after graduating because they needed to be citizens.

“Because of the government shutdown a lot of their paperwork got delayed, so anytime I see a student who becomes an American citizen, it’s a great victory,” she said.

Ms. Montuma said that she was looking forward to the program’s growth: about 60 students were being honored that day.

“We started off with smaller numbers so I’m excited to see how things will go moving forward,” she said.

A Financial Lifeline

CEEDS, which was open only to juniors and seniors, offered students a stipend of $5,000 per semester. Almost half of CUNY students come from families that earned less than $20,000 a year, and for Ms. Thiam, the opportunity came at a critical time because her family became homeless last year between June and December after she returned from a vacation to Senegal.

It was especially painful because she was responsible for taking care of her father, who was disabled, but couldn’t stay in the same shelter as him or her brothers.

“Without this money, I wouldn’t have been able to get back with them,” she said.

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