N E W Y O R K, Dec. 29, 2000 -- While the rest of the city sleeps, a group of boys embarks on one of the most critical journeys of their young lives. They’ve just been released from Rikers Island — New York’s notorious detention center and the nation’s largest jail — given subway fare and sent on their way.
Of the approximately 5,000 boys sentenced to wear the beige uniforms at Rikers this year, an astonishing 70 percent will be back in prison within a year of their release.
Rikers is so full of teenagers, there’s a high school inside called Island Academy. Many of the boys are fatherless; many have children of their own. Statistically, they are the next generation of career criminals.
“These are children who believe inside that they are worth nothing, that they do not belong in this society,” says Beth Navon, executive director of the Friends of Island Academy, which provides jobs, education and counseling to keep young felons from returning to jail. “We have children who have crossed a certain line,” she says. “ But it does not mean that you throw them away forever.“
Lessons Learned the Hard Way
Twice a week, Rich McClain comes to Rikers to address the inmates at their most vulnerable moment: just days before they’re released.
“Y’all brothers got to start using your head,” he says to a group of soon-to-be-released prisoners. “Realize that y’all are doing the damage to yourself.”
McClain grew up on the brutal, drug-infested streets in Brooklyn. As a teenager, he became a major drug boss, controlling a corner while operating out of a grocery store.
A gun possession conviction landed McClain in jail and twice sent him to Rikers Island. Once out, he took a bullet in his back during a gun battle and landed in the hospital where he flat-lined twice, nearly dying. That’s when he decided to turn his life around.
He found the Friends of Island Academy, where he met people who helped him believe that what he wanted to do could actually happen.
Now one of those people himself, McClain shows teens that there are two sides of the street — the “legit” side and the “corrupt” side — and that they have a choice.
“Over here, you retire, rewards,” he tells inmates. “Over here: Dead or in jail. Straight like that.”
He gets in their face, forcing them to accept responsibility for their destructive actions.
“You all carrying big guns, shooting people, shooting your own people,” he argues. “A white man not killing us like that. We killing each other. So it’s us doing it to us.”
American Dream, Upside Down
The words hit home for convicted drug dealer Marc Washington six years ago as he got his subway fare on the way out of Rikers.
In Washington’s case, it took root with extraordinary results, enabling him to travel to a place he never could have imagined when he was behind bars.
“Do you know what selling drugs is in the ghetto?” he asked his mostly white, well-heeled audience at a recent breakfast where he was honored as an urban hero. “It’s the American dream for us.”
Washington and his two brothers were raised by their mother and crack-addicted stepfather. As a child, Marc’s entire world was the street, with its inverted glory for drugs and violence.
In the early 1990s, at the height of the crack epidemic, the dealers ruled the streets. And the boss in Washington’s neighborhood was his older brother, Antwone.
Marc trusted only one person: his partner and best friend James McMoore, known as “Lumps.” Marc was only 15 years old, but he and Lumps ruled their corner.
One night in 1993, Washington was standing in his own lobby with 300 vials of crack. Suddenly, police who’d entered through the fire escape, rushed toward him and yelled, “Freeze!”
Washington saw their guns and bolted for the front door. He ran around the corner and tried to unload the drugs. He frantically tossed the crack over a fence and sprinted down the street until one cop pointed his gun and yelled “Stop or I’ll shoot!”
“I felt it in my heart that he was gonna shoot me,” he says. “I stopped. This is the genesis of Marc Washington as a human being. I started to live at that point. I knew that I didn’t want to die.”
He pleaded guilty to felony drug charges and was sentenced to six months in Rikers. For kids like him, it was simply an extension of life in the ’hood.
Washington knew there was another world out there, but he didn’t know the way in.
‘I Want to Stay in the Ghetto Forever’
Near the end of his stint at Rickers, a representative from the Friends of Island Academy came to the prison and reached out to Washington. When Washington was released, he used his subway fare to get to Friends, where he got help finding his first jobs and paying for college.
But as much as he wanted to leave the streets, Washington realized the streets could never completely leave him. Of his 20 closest friends only two made it out the ’hood. The others are either in jail or dead.
“We’ve helped to, to start a lot of lives on the wrong path,” he says. “And I feel I have to repent for those things. I have to make it right.”
“Marc to me is a symbol,” says Clinton Lacey, director of programs at Friends. “And he represents the potential of what has been demonized and criminalized in this society; the young black male.”
He is now on the staff at Friends, working to save other inmates just released from jail. For kids that stick with Friends long enough, the prison return rate plummets from 70 percent to just 17 percent.
Washington has graduated from college and plans to go to law school but he has no intention of leaving his old neighborhood. Friends has taught him that turning your life around also means taking others with you.
“Everyone wants to leave, you know, and I’m not going anywhere,” he says. “Because if we all leave, then the same cycle will continue. There is a very real need for people, these young people, to see people like me. I want to stay in the ghetto forever.”