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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.’ ”
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?
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”