Chopping Recidivism: Get Out and Stay Out – Part 2

On August 25th, 2009, published Part 1 of a commentary by Mark Goldsmith, winner of a $100,000 Purpose Prize for his work to reduce the recidivism rate for young offenders serving time on Rikers Island, New York City’s largest corrections facility. Following is Part 2 of his commentary. – ED

goldsmith.jpgBy Mark Goldsmith

Following the media coverage of the Getting Out and Staying Out (GOSO) program, many people from around the country contacted us, asking how they can start a program like GOSO in their own communities. In response to these questions, we’ve put together the following summary of how we have gotten to where we are.

One caveat: If you want to start a GOSO program in your community, be warned: this work will require everything from you; so if you aren’t willing to give yourself completely to it, don’t even consider doing it. The reality is that prison systems are not currently set up to support the work. In New York, we got lucky. High-ranking leaders of city and state government, from the Mayor’s office to the corrections agencies, are committed to countering the recidivism rate with effective discharge planning. If you find that your community is ready – and you’re ready to go at it 24/7 – then the rewards can be truly spectacular.

In 2003, retired businessman Mark Goldsmith founded Getting Out and Staying Out to lower the recidivism rate of incarcerated young men on Rikers Island, New York City’s largest corrections facility. The idea was simple: bring successful people to Rikers Island to coach young men, giving them practical direction and tools to build productive lives in mainstream society. And continue to coach them when they return to their communities. In short, give them the tools to get out and then to stay out. Now in its fifth year, GOSO has established itself as a key player for young men ages 18-24, with less than twenty percent of GOSO’s clients returning to Rikers, compared with an over-all Rikers recidivism rate of roughly 66%. New York City has selected GOSO as a major provider for its newest initiative to combat recidivism. And GOSO has received funding from some of the nation’s leading philanthropic foundations.

Breaking through the system and getting off the ground is the toughest part. Here are some key steps in our journey so far:

We’ve built GOSO on a particular set of conditions, beliefs and practices. Without any of these, we would have been stalled at the starting gate.
1. True belief. If you don’t truly believe that incarcerated young men can build productive lives in mainstream society, they won’t follow you anywhere.
2. Passionate addiction. Being there for the guys is truly a 24/7 proposition. You have to lead by example and let the work reprioritize your life. This is your second family: kids who need successful adults to be there when they are needed, to solve life-jeopardizing problems in the moment. Are you willing to work weekends to help a guy out of a jam?
3. Top-to-top access. We had to impress, cultivate and cement access to the top people at all four critical points: the DOC, the Mayor’s office, the Governor’s office, and the Prison Superintendent’s office (guards ultimately determine frequency and quality of access to prisoners).
4. Inside connection. Our strong relationship with Horizon Academy and Island Academy, schools located on Rikers, and their principals, allows us to start working with young men early on, and to support them in making educational progress (GED or diploma) before they leave Rikers. Forging strong bonds with the rank-and-file corrections staff is also critical to your ability to get things done at any detention facility.
5. Teamwork. Rather than act in isolation, we collaborate with other agencies, educational facilities, potential employers, and local and state governments to ensure that clients succeed.
6. Successful coaches. We bring in successful people who map out what it takes to succeed in the mainstream. They show up at Rikers every week and work with our guys, both in groups and individually. A lot of our guys don’t have a single, positive role model in their lives, so these coaches make an extraordinary impact.
7. Practical action. We focus on actions, one small step at a time. We set realistic goals with each of our young men and then help them execute a practical, day-by-day plan to get there.
8. Earn everything. We make our guys perform at every step, from writing an application essay to get into the program, to keeping commitments on the outside – to earn subway passes, clothing allowances and short-term stipends.
9. Family involvement. We get the family involved. Nothing happens if families don’t support the new plan.
10. Measurement. Success breeds success, and we stay focused on outcomes, things we can measure: how many of our young men have returned to Rikers? Earned a GED or diploma? Gotten jobs? We live by this. And funders demand it.

Starting GOSO was like launching any start-up on a shoe-string budget. It required enormous levels of resourcefulness and creativity. And it required getting the ball rolling – without an elaborate infrastructure, staff or outside funding – until we had a track record we could sell to funders. Thus, we lived the principle we preach to our guys about their own paths to productive lives: “yard by yard it’s hard…inch by inch it’s a cinch.” One of our critical early building blocks was a board of directors.

GOSO’s early months relied extensively on cultivating a small, working board of directors, meaning that each board member rolled up his sleeves, came to Rikers, and served as a coach for our guys. This was less about board members with deep pockets, and more about successful men and women who were willing to get their hands dirty and help build the organization when we had few resources to hire staff. It wasn’t until later in our development that we focused on finding members who could lead fundraising. Ultimately, you have to be able to bring together a team, and bring them to the game.


FINE PRINT IN GRAPHICS recognizes that the copy in the above two tables depends on extremely fine print. This is necessitated by the limitation of our column size and website layout. If any of our readers is serious about starting up a GOSO program in their own community, contact us by email at , and we’ll snail-mail you both full-size, easy-to-read, full-color tables.

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