Chopping Recidivism: Get Out and Stay Out – Part 1

A major national philanthropic award program, named the Purpose Prize, each year awards five $100,000 prizes to individuals over the age of 60 who have demonstrated uncommon vision, determination and entrepreneurialism in addressing community and national problems. In 2008, Mark Goldsmith won one of these prizes for his efforts “cutting recidivism rates through comprehensive reentry services for young offenders.” Following is a commentary by Mark, partially reprinted with permission from the Encore Careers Campaign. It is Part 1 of a two-part series. Part 2 will appear as a second commentary on in the near future, and will be based on information from Getting Out and Staying Out’s website, offering our motivated readers a template that they can use to duplicate his achievements within jails or prisons in their own community.

By Mark Goldsmith

At age 65, I needed a challenge. As a former cosmetics industry executive, I signed up for the annual “Principal for a Day” program in New York City. I was expecting a tough day at a tough school, but I hadn’t exactly prepared myself for Horizon Academy, a high school for 18- to 24-year-old inmates on Rikers Island.

Rikers sits on an island half the size of Central Park, surrounded by a large fence topped with coiled barbed wire. A single bridge guarded by a security checkpoint is the only way in or out. New York City’s largest corrections facility, the nine buildings on Riker’s Island house 14,000 women and men every night.

I showed up in a suit and tie, thinking I’d spend a few hours at the Academy, then go back to work. But something unlikely happened…real conversations ensued. “I don’t know why they’re listening to a guy in a suit,” a corrections officer told me at the end of a very long day, “but they are.”

I was listening to the corrections officer. “Nobody talks to this population,” he says. “When they’re outside, they walk around the city with their jeans hanging down, their earphones on, and nobody talks to them. All of these young men live this isolated life. They have nothing, they’re going nowhere. Then when they’re in Rikers, it’s a daily routine that never changes, they shuffle in a single line to go to meals, they shuffle back.”

I went to Rikers again the next year. The year after that, I decided to do more than visit. I retired from my corporate job and launched a nonprofit, Getting Out and Staying Out, to help the students at Horizon Academy plan for the future.

Many prisons work with inmates a month before they’re released to get them ready for life outside. I decided the only way to really help these young inmates was to work with them from the day they walk in to put together a plan for the day they walk out.

While in prison, the students who do not have their GED’s or high-school diplomas are
urged to attend classes, which are supplemented by coaching and life-skills instruction. Once released, I urged program participants to make our storefront office in East Harlem their first stop. There they pick up a toolkit with essentials for living in the city: an electric alarm clock; identification card; subway, bus and city maps; a Metro card to pay for public transportation; a diary to keep track of appointments; condoms; and a brand-new resume. Staff members and volunteers then help them find jobs, get a GED, enroll in vocational training programs and, if necessary, enter substance-abuse treatment programs.

Getting Out and Staying Out takes on approximately 300 new clients each year. Of the total 900 that have come through the program, 300 are either on Rikers Island or in upstate prisons. Of the 600 who have been released, less than twenty percent (120) have been sent back to Rikers Island on new charges. During the same period, the recidivism rate for Rikers Island was 66%.

Over 150 still come to our office for services. The majority are either working or going to school, and many are doing both at the same time. Over 35 participants are attending community colleges.

Getting Out and Staying Out follows a business model. We let the guys know that we’re willing to invest in them if they’re willing to invest in themselves. To participate in the program, they submit a resume and a short essay. They also sign a contract stating that they’ll attend classes, complete their assignments and take responsibility for their actions. We push them to get their general equivalency diploma as a necessary first step.

I have a wide range of contacts and invite a varied group of current and retired executives to volunteer their time and share their knowledge with the students. Many programs send less-experienced people to work with inmates. Ours has seasoned and successful people who spend time inside with the guys. These coaches, along with our counselors, speak frankly about everything, from what makes a business tick, to the legal rights of inmates on how to keep from being sent back to jail.

Richard Block, 68, is the retired CEO of a 2,000-employee entertainment-packaging company, and current Getting Out and Staying Out coach. He spends two days a week at Rikers, and at least an hour and a half each week at the East Harlem office. “This experience has introduced me to a hidden world and opened up for me a side of myself I had never let surface,” says Block. “It thrills me to be able to spend time that’s about something more than making money or impressing other people. Working with the guys is an amazing experience.”

Three months after his release from Rikers, Jeremy, 20, had an interview for a job in the duplicating department of a major law firm. He and I practiced for three hours to get him ready. Jeremy aced the interview and got the job. “If you’re determined, they work really hard to make sure you succeed,” Jeremy says.

I feel a connection to the young men at Rikers. I see myself in them when I was their age; all I wanted to do was play ball and socialize. I was not a driven student. I graduated near the bottom of my high-school class and joined the Navy after a couple of lackluster years in college. Marriage, more education, and a lot of hard work eventually propelled me to success in my career.

I feel a certain responsibility to young people. Our generation was fortunate enough to grow up with stable families, decent schools and people who counseled us. We now have a population of 18- to 24-year-old guys in every major city in this country who are unemployed, uneducated and going nowhere. Very few of them have men in their lives that aren’t either in jail or on drugs.

If we don’t train these guys and instruct them by example, what will happen to them? It’s time to pass on what we learned. At this time of life, giving back is what it’s all about.

Be sure to watch for Part 2 of Mark Goldsmith’s commentary in the near future. It will provide you with a template that you can use to duplicate his program within jails or prisons in your own community. Like Mark says, “It’s time to pass on what he learned.”-ED

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