Andre's World

A kid needs imagination to survive high school and jail on Rikers Island

I met Andre Blandon in April 2004, as he began his "bullet." That's jail slang for a year-long sentence, commonly reduced to eight months good time. Andre was hunched over a light table, sketching Jason, the principal character of a comic book he was creating. Other teenagers hovered around him and, like commuters around a kid who plays paint buckets as Clyde Stubblefield plays drums, they gazed at Andre with blank curiosity. Andre was pending his bid in Rikers Island jail, the largest city correctional facility in North America, drawing cartoons. His jail moniker was simply "Artist."

video: Andre's notebook: A sketch of Jason
image: Showtime/'Rikers High'
For over three years, I'd pursued the opportunity to make a documentary ("Rikers High," in rotation on Showtime this fall) about Austin MacCormick Island Academy. That's the school on the wrong side of the barbed-wire fences and swirling currents of the East River that separate Rikers Island jail from the rest of our city. Divided into three sections, including one for girls, the school takes in the 2,000 inmates, 18-years-old or under, who are locked up in Rikers. Attendance is mandatory, enforced by correction officers, who shuttle the kids through the adult sections of the jail and to the school. For many teens in Rikers, Island Academy is their first experience of formal education for years.

To teach students of vastly different abilities and educational backgrounds—many of whom have woeful, often violent, disciplinary records—can seem a Sisyphean task. A teacher can make considerable progress with a student only to arrive one morning to find him transferred, released, or sent to the "Bing" (or, worse, the infirmary) after a fight. Still, the Island Academy keeps functioning. And over a hundred teenage inmates receive their G.E.D.s there every year. Like a truck stop on the edge of the desert, the facilities the school provides seem essential.

Life for Andre Blandon (lower left): Artist, Inmate, Student, Survivor
image: Showtime/'Rikers High'
Life for Andre Blandon (lower left): Artist, Inmate, Student, Survivor

Many of these kids, however, don't understand the scope of that desert and, as a result, spend most of their lives caught up in the prison system. This reality hits hard when you see a line of teenage inmates, dressed in tan uniforms, shuttle past adult prisoners, who wear green. The adults' faces are weathered, cheeks drawn in, teeth knocked out by fights or drugs. Comparing the adults to the restless, bright-eyed teenage population seems a gruesome before/after slideshow—and is enough to make the system appear vast and inexorable. Gus Rodriguez, who has been a special education teacher at Island Academy for five years, stresses that there is a way out. His first ambition for an incoming teenager is to shift his perspective away from the streets:

"They've no idea where they are in the scheme of things. So we start literally. With geography . . . maps. We look at continents, at countries, at states. You're sitting on a chair in Rikers Island. But where is that exactly? I try to teach them that there is great deal more to life than the one square block they live on."

Mr. Rodriguez's students have accelerated past all previous stop signs: group homes, special programs, foster care, detention centers, even, as in Andre's case, drug programs. Many have alienated themselves from their families and instead clutch onto tenuous support systems, such as gang allegiances. Their psychology is entrenched in the world of survival, whether that means through drug-dealing, guns, or robbery:

"What breaks my heart is that there's a lot of guys who already think their life is over. They're eighteen and they think they're done. How do you convince a kid like that to take an interest in education?"

Mr. Rodriguez's plaint stayed in my mind as I shot my documentary.

video: Gus Rodriguez talks about the death of his father
image: Showtime/'Rikers High'
It is hard to overstate the degree to which television has already mythologized jail. And it is hard not to resent this when you come face to face with how petty life at Rikers can (and, many would argue, should) be. As John Hopson, a correction officer for 32 years, told me:

"RIkers has changed over the years. Now it's more like a shelter. A place you go when you're out of options. Most of these kids are out of options."

Rikers does not reform these teenagers and they return with virtual certainty: Eight out of 10 are re-arrested within a year of their release. The New York Times estimated that it costs $100,000 to house an inmate at Rikers. Teachers at Island Academy point out that a year's specialized education outside of jail costs a tenth of that figure.

video: In jail, food is money
image: Showtime/'Rikers High'
While mindful of jail's many hazards—who can forget that prison is hell?—it is easy to dismiss many teenage inmates as thugs. But often the toughest guys are those most wrapped up in their surroundings and who have the least perspective on the absurdity of their situation. A kid from the Bronx, the Sonny Corleone of "5 Main" dormitory, held aloft several bags of Soft-Batch Cookies and informed me that he had "taxed" (beaten up) an inmate to get them. Food, even cookies, he explained, equates to money and, once you have money, then, well, you have power. I nodded my head benignly as I imagined the Pillsbury Doughboy and Tony Montana in an alleyway, a small mountain of castor sugar about to change hands.
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