Prisoner's Dilemma

Learning the Hard Way at Rikers

When 19-year-old José Vargas was charged with first-degree robbery and sent to Rikers Island, he could barely write his name. The Bronx native had dropped out of school in ninth grade. He never expected to reenter the classroom—especially not behind bars.

Then Vargas enrolled in Horizon Academy, a prison program that helps detainees earn their general equivalency diplomas (GEDs). Working with small resources in an environment where aggressive guards and random searches often disrupt lessons, Horizon teachers hope to give students like Vargas a second chance. And the teachers know that schooling reduces recidivism: According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the more education inmates receive, the less likely they are to be rearrested.

"When I started, I couldn't read, I couldn't write, I couldn't do math," Vargas says. "But they didn't make me feel dumb or anything. They said, 'We're here to help you out.' "

Screen savior: Vincent Quadion—Rikers inmate, Horizon student
photo: Michael Sofronski
Screen savior: Vincent Quadion—Rikers inmate, Horizon student

For Vargas, school is an escape from the anxiety of court dates, felons who harass, guards who callously call inmates "bodies," and the Rikers dorm—a vast human warehouse where possessions are regularly stolen by fellow prisoners or ripped apart during searches.

For all the surrounding chaos, a Horizon facility almost looks like a normal school. Drawings of Martin Luther King Jr. and "Student of the Month" certificates line the cheery hallways. Posters of the solar system cover classroom walls, and the morning's lessons are scrawled on the chalkboard. In one class, students hunch over their desks, working on an essay. The topic: Which is preferable—the spontaneity of youth or the stability of age?

"When I started, I couldn't read, I couldn't write, I couldn't do math," Vargas says. "But they didn't make me feel dumb or anything. They said, 'We're here to help you out.' "

In 1996, the Legal Aid Society filed a class-action suit against the New York City Board of Education and Department of Correction, claiming the lack of schooling at Rikers for 18-to-21-year-old prisoners violated state and federal laws. As a response, the two departments created Horizon Academy. The program began in February 1998 and operates in five of Rikers's 10 prison facilities.

Unlike the other high schools on Rikers Island, Horizon extends its services to those outside the general prison population. Teachers visit the infirmary to instruct students recovering from gunshot wounds and offer classes to those under protective custody. Students confined to their cells under so-called punitive segregation (solitary confinement) have the option of one-on-one tutoring.

Each school annex has a library and computer lab. The student-teacher ratio is 10 to 1. But Horizon faces many challenges. It receives nearly $2 million annually from the Board of Education, roughly equivalent to the funding for a single public school, but the sum hardly covers the special education needs of the many learning-disabled prisoners.

Nearly one-third of all Rikers inmates read below a fifth-grade level; at present, only 10 percent of all New York City inmates have a high school diploma or GED. Yet out of 27 Horizon teachers, only five are trained in special education. The academy only has one guidance counselor.

"I get [students] who can't even read or write," says Horizon principal Gloria Ortiz. "If the education system did not fail them outside, they wouldn't be in jail."

With its high attrition rate, success is almost impossible to measure. Even though 2000 students enrolled last year, their attendance ranges from two weeks to six months—making Horizon a "schoolhouse with a revolving door," according to a DOC spokesman. Last year, 79 earned their GEDs—a seemingly low number, but impressive considering the transient student body.

Since most Horizon students are awaiting trial, they can find themselves reading Langston Hughes one week and being released or sent upstate for 25-to-life the next. One Horizon teacher remembers a student who prepared for months to take the GED and failed by a mere four points. (A passing score is 225.) Although upset, he was determined to pass and began cramming again. It was a week before another exam arrived. When the teacher rushed to the student's cell, the bunk was empty. That very day, he had been hauled upstate to serve time.

"I get [students] who can't even read or write. If the education system did not fail them outside, they wouldn't be in jail."

Guards linger in the hallways. Riot gear is piled near the door to the school annex. Outsiders, including teachers and administrators, submit to searches every time they enter.

On a recent Tuesday, a class is abruptly canceled due to a tactical search operation, or TSO. Equipped with 50,000-volt stun shields, officers charge into cells, searching for contraband weapons, preventing inmates from leaving their living quarters. Principal Ortiz frantically calls the deputy warden, urging him to escort a few students down to the annex. Her efforts are futile. At Rikers, school cannot get in the way of security.

Randomly timed TSOs are part of the Violence Prevention Program, which has reduced slashings and stabbings 90 percent in the last five years. A display case near the Horizon annex exhibits some of the confiscated weapons. Plexiglas burned to a knife-edge, sharpened rings snatched from mops, and battered switchblades hang like bizarre artifacts exhumed from a crypt.

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