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On Rikers, LaGuardia students teach and learn

12-week paid internship benefits inmates too


“We don’t have to fight with people to educate them,” Cory Rowe, an associate professor of Criminal Justice at LaGuardia Community College-CUNY, told her new team of justice fellows, a cadre of students who are spending time on Rikers Island helping teach courses in sociology, public speaking and other subjects to inmates on the penal island.

Rowe, who is also the director of the LaGuardia-Rikers college credit program, and the students, were sitting at an oblong table during one of several weekly training sessions earlier this year talking about the upcoming spring semester. The fellows, who are interning with Rowe through the S.O.A.R. (Succeed, Observe, Achieve, and Rise) Experiential Learning Program, a 12-week paid internship, have a hand designing the courses as part of a LaGuardia program that has afforded a chance for inmates to get an education at the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers. The fellows will also collect data on the process and outcome. 

Research has shown that providing inmates and detainees with education increases their ability to find employment when they are released. It also reduces the chances that they will return to jail. 

The program, in partnership with the nonprofit College Way, has also enabled some inmates and detainees to get their sentences reduced after they complete the courses, which they generally do old-school, through course books, since access to computers in jail can be limited. The program, though, does not yet offer a path to earning a degree. Participants, though, do have the opportunity to transfer their credits to LaGuardia post-release. 

Through an initiative funded by the Robin Hood Foundation, detainees can obtain assistance in enrolling for a degree program through the college’s Office of Credit for Prior Learning, which awards academic credit for college-level learning acquired outside traditional classrooms. 

Many of the justice fellows are familiar with the justice system, having previously served time in juvenile facilities, providing them with both credibility and empathy as they teach their courses. “I was a former juvenile delinquent when I was 19 years old, and it’s rewarding to help today’s 19-year-old juvenile delinquents,” said Andres Aragundi, a CUNY grad student and a justice fellow affiliated with The Children’s Village. Aragundi added that part of the S.O.A.R. program’s allure was the opportunity to set an example for those on Rikers. 

An open mind is a prereq

The pipeline effort enables students to engage with community-based organizations, government agencies and small and large businesses as part of their curriculum. It’s also giving him invaluable experience. “The program is a good exposure to the criminal justice field and helps the new justice fellows an introduction to the criminal justice major,” Aragundi explained. 

A justice fellow colleague, Joan Boothe, a CUNY undergrad working with the Bronx Department of Probation, said she was drawn to the program to influence others, and to prove that achievement is possible, despite involvement in the justice system.

“I was in trouble for four years with charges in joyriding, assault and battery,” said Boothe, who is working with the Bronx Department of Probation. “I joined College Way and Dr. Rowe to become a role model. I went from a juvenile delinquent to a straight A+ student,” said Boothe.

The fellows assist Rowe in advocating on behalf of the detainees, including by assisting in writing letters to lawyers about their progress in the program. Rowe and her team of fellows attend seminars on criminal justice topics and travel to Albany to champion changes in the justice system that will better address the needs of detainees. The program has not only been a tool of self-development for the Rikers’s detainees but also for the team of justice fellows, Rowe said.  

“The only requirement to become a justice fellow is to be enrolled at LaGuardia Community College and have an open mind,” Rowe said during the fellows’ first training session in LaGuardia’s C-Building. The compulsory training sessions, held over 13 weeks, go over the dos and donts of teaching at Rikers, which include dress code for the fellows. Among the particulars: no big jewelry, no watches, comfortable shoes. The students must also use clear bookbags and must wear their College Way T-shirt.

“We want each individual to express their personality because the detainees feel more comfortable with us when teaching with the volunteers,” College Way’s director, Kathy Mora, said. 

Rowe and the justice fellows are working to develop and expand the program. Starting this month, the program starts a new chapter. In coordination with the city Department of Correction, a new team of fellows will begin teaching three-credit courses to 25 women detainees at Rikers’ Rose. M. Singer Center. “Now we provide equal opportunity to everyone, no matter the level of education or gender” Rowe said.

Rowe later unveiled yet a third expansion to the program. The program will expand to juvenile facilities later this year. The fellows program will begin at Crossroads Juvenile Center in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and Horizon Juvenile Center in Mott Haven, Bronx, following an approval from the city’s Administration for Children's Services, which oversees the juvenile system. “Many of these children struggle academically and seeing the justice fellows connect with the incarcerated students will be remarkable,” said Rowe.

The justice fellows program will continue creating new goals this year, and look to expand opportunities for inmates in city jails, including by offering course lessons that have immediate relevance, such as on procedural and practical law. But the program’s objective, no matter the subject, is to create pathways for inmates and detainees to change the direction of their lives. There’s empowerment in that, Rowe said. 

As Rowe told the justice fellows during a training session earlier this year, the effort they bring to the program “may not always change the outcome, but it can change the feeling.”


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