By: Joseph Ryder and Jay Shah
Over the last year, Stony Brook’s School of Social Welfare has expanded its educational programs to reach out to juvenile offenders and inmates by increasing the size of its classes and partnering with the court system.
These programs began to grow after a 2013 study by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank, found that “correctional education would reduce reincarceration rates by 12.9 percentage points on average” nationally. While the effects of individual programs need to be more thoroughly researched, educational programs overall provide a way for prisoners to be reintegrated into society.
Inmate education programs at Riverhead such as “vocational job training, substance abuse education, and anti-gang programs” help prisoners “make a successful transition when they return home,” Kristin MacKay, Public Relations Director for the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, said.
Riverhead houses around 1400 inmates at any given point. Although the average stay at the jail is less than a year, during their stay, inmates are encouraged to participate in educational programs, ranging from GED (General Education Development) classes to vocational training, to help the inmates prepare for a life after release.
While many of these programs are aimed towards older inmates, the facility also offers programs for younger inmates ages 16-21.
The School of Social Welfare at Stony Brook University runs a case management internship at Riverhead where graduate students reach out to youth inmates and help them plan for the future.
Director of Field Education Betty Jean Wrase said the school helped start the Sheriff’s Youth Tier and Reentry Initiative in September 2011 “because New York is one of only two states that consider youths as adults at age 16 when it comes to incarceration.”
“The Stony Brook students would work one on one with the jail’s youth tier to get their lives on track and prepare a game plan for their lives outside of prison and reduce their chances of recidivism,” Wrase said.
Kate Sinnott, a graduate student with the School of Social Welfare, worked with 10-15 youth inmates over the last year. She spoke about a success story of the program, where an “angry and resistant 16 year old” with a pregnant girlfriend became “more open towards therapy.”
“The program really created a better situation for him,” Sinnott said.
Another program to provide juvenile offenders an alternative to prison was put in place by Acting Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho.
Camacho told Fordham Law that he meets with the juvenile offenders every three weeks to plan “where young offenders can get stable housing, education, and, if needed, mental health and drug treatment.”
While the youth inmates are offered more life planning programs, inmates over 21 years old have the option to enroll in a GED program.
“A majority of individuals who are incarcerated did not graduate high school,” Jeff Mellow, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College, said. “We spend a lot of time talking about post-secondary education for prisoners, but we should be spending the same, if not more, time talking about getting prisoners a high school equivalent degree.”
“Education is one of the most significant symbols in showing one is ready to take a new path in life,” Mellow said. “And in today’s high tech world we need skilled labor. Employers are looking for educated workers.”
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand the importance of having a high school education,” Mellow said.