Jail, A Harsh Reality for A Lot of Teens

It’s not often one gets to enter a high security prison only to get out hours later. That’s what HarlemLive did recently when we went to present our program to some all male high school classes at Rikers Island in New York City. 

HarlemLive has traveled around the globe showing other communities the power of the web in creating outlets for expression and the journalism process which expands the youth’s view of their world. For the last five years, HarlemLive has provided a teen centered program unprecedented in New York City. Our young people have traveled to Sweden, Rome, and Washington, DC to accept awards for their success at producing a domestic and international award winning state-of-the-art news and cultural web magazine

What made this visit a surprise to us is that we bumped into a couple people we knew. 

While we sat in the principal’s office, many of the guys were filing past on their way to lunch. Through the window to the hallway, one 18 year old teen did a double take as he recognized HarlemLive teen spokesperson, Melvin Johnson. Both grew up in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx. He was incarcerated for being present at the scene of a gang assault. 

The incarceration has changed his attitude about wanting to stay in gangs. What really hit him was his younger brother asking when he was, “going to grow up and start being a real older brother,” who could serve as a role model to his younger siblings. 

After chatting with the young inmate, we got a chance to speak to the principal, Frank Dody. Dody came to work many years ago as a one year stint but stayed on seeing how much in need the teens were of caring adults. There are 10 prisons on Rikers Island housing up to 17,000 inmates. Of the 10, there are 4 that house adolescents and teens. HarlemLive was visiting the Adolescent Reception and Detention Center (ARDC). It houses adolescents who have yet to be sentenced. “They could be here for a day or several months,” said Mr. Dody. 

At the ARDC, most of the teens that are not deemed to be dangerous to the others live in large dorm areas that sleep 50 inmates with individual cots separated by a small locker. There is at least one fight a day, usually about “who’s in charge”, among the youth.

In the classrooms, there are 15 male students to a class. We noticed that the teachers were all male but that many of the security guards in the halls were female. Our visit stirred some excitement as Melvin Johnson, Danya Steele, and Justin Young walked through the halls to the first of three classes. 

Pressed against one of the plexiglass windows that allowed the guards to peer into the classrooms was a young teen. It was a teen who was part of the Urban Youth Bike Corp, with whom HL has collaborated. While most alumni of the UYBC are now attending college, this young man chose a different path and was convicted for two armed robberies. 

The prison personnel allowed the teen to attend some of the classes with the HarlemLive editors as they made their presentations. He was even able to speak to the director of the UYBC by using HL’s cell phone. It seemed our visit and the fact he knew us helped increase his stature with his fellow classmates and teachers. 

We spoke to the teens about HarlemLive possibly working with the teachers and providing an outlet for them to publish their poetry, stories and artwork. Melvin spoke of how his life changed once he chose to work with HarlemLive, a choice that lead to an increase in his skills and self esteem and away from the scene on the streets. Some of the teens acted in the normal classroom atmosphere of “let’s perform for the visitors” while many of the other teens seemed to be extremely quiet and reserved. 

We’re hoping that our message made it to at least one teen and that they find a program or place where they can find their niche in life, where they’ll know they can be a valued and productive member in their community, and aybe even a “real older brother,” to their siblings and friends. 

Sites to view: 

NYC government’s Department of Correction web pages: http://www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/doc/home.html 

Description of the 10 Rikers Island Jails http://www.correctionhistory.org/html/chronicl/nycdoc/html/jailist1.html

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