Prisoner's Dilemma

Learning the Hard Way at Rikers

"Tactics like TSOs provide an enhanced environment for programs like Horizon Academy to push forward," says Thomas McCarthey, a spokesman for the DOC.

But day to day, searches disrupt classes. Even if a search is conducted at another building, school guards are the first to be called away, leaving no one to escort students to class. Teachers are forced to work around lockdowns and checkpoints, where it can take hours for a student to receive his pass. If an alarm rings at the end of the day, teachers are stuck on the island until the crisis has passed. Despite these problems, the faculty keep their mouths shut.

"You have to be careful," says one teacher, "or they'll make life hard for you."

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

Principal Ortiz recalls a recent Career Day. Teachers hired three students as clerks to prepare for the event. They spent hours typing up schedules and lists of presenters. Thirteen different agencies set up stands in the prison yard to talk to inmates about job planning. After the successful event, the faculty invited the three students to the staff barbecue. But when they arrived, correction officers pushed them away, saying "You're not going anywhere." According to Ortiz, despite having the deputy warden's permission, and even after a counselor argued with the COs, only one student was allowed to attend the barbecue. The guards gave no explanation. "It's a question of class," says Ortiz. "They felt that inmates shouldn't eat where COs were eating."

Teachers are forced to work around lockdowns and checkpoints, where it can take hours for a student to receive his pass.

With the DOC conflicts and the constant turnover in students, Horizon Academy is still at an inchoate stage. But the faculty has learned to work with the unpredictability of correctional education. When the TSO canceled all their classes, the teachers had an impromptu faculty meeting to bolster morale. Angel Lopez, who has been a bilingual teacher at Horizon for two years, passed around a former student's letter. With precise, elegant penmanship, he wrote about his new environment: a minimum-security prison upstate.

After a description of working in the mountains, cutting down trees, he reminisced, "I miss our classroom. You were always a good teacher with me." During his brief time at Horizon, according to Lopez, he swiftly moved from a third- to eighth-grade reading level. He closes the letter by asking how he did on his GED—and for more homework, for old times' sake.

"We treat them like students. We don't call them inmates," Lopez says. "We say this is a regular house and a regular school. You want to motivate them."

That strategy appears to be working. A first-time inmate, José Vargas says he couldn't handle his initial days in jail. He frequently considered suicide. Eventually, he sought counseling and enrolled in Horizon's special education courses. Now he attends math class every day, in a threadbare room furnished with a chalkboard, an industrial fan, and a scattering of desks. On this day, while the other students jokingly groan when the teacher asks for volunteers, Vargas hardly speaks. But he is the first to write his problem on the board (32.5 - 6.2 = 26.3), explaining his correct answer in a soft voice.

Later, Vargas says he is determined to obtain his GED. He wants to prove to his mother, wife, and two children that he can be a better person. Although he has months to go before attaining his dream, he has come a long way.

"When my mother writes me a letter, I can read it," he says. "And now at night, I can write a letter back to my mother and say, 'I love you' and 'I miss you.' I couldn't even do that before."

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