New York, N.Y. A group of recent graduates beam with pride as they accept congratulations from assorted friends, teachers and strangers. Wearing flowing green robes they sit with loved ones, many of them clutching tiny babies who in a few years will have vague yet colourful memories of this wonderful day.
Laughter and joy rings out around the room for the next hour as food is eaten, stories are told and pride seems to emanate from every proud scholar clutching their new certificate. It is only as the day wraps up that all participants are jolted back to reality and reminded that this isn’t your average graduation ceremony. The green robes are removed to reveal grey department of correction issued uniforms and the babies are gently handed back to girlfriends and Mothers.
We are not sat in a school, university or further education college; we are in a gym, deep in the middle of the sprawling complex of jails that make up Rikers Island, the largest correctional complex in the world. The 25 graduates here today are all currently serving short term sentences on the island and this morning has been the culmination of a ten week programme called Fresh Start.
My journey to today’s graduation began many years and thousands of miles away from Rikers Island in Cardiff, South Wales. Growing up I was the victim of an assault at the age of seventeen which would profoundly effect the next few years of my life. Having taken the case to court I was labelled a snitch and spent the next few years spiralling between fear and anger resulting in several arrests and a complete loss of any self-esteem.
During this time I became morbidly interested in anything to do with prison or the criminal justice system. I poured over the internet for hours wanting to know what would be happening to the boys who had turned my life upside down. My Mother who was fighting her own battle with alcoholism was aware of my interest and one Christmas presented me with a book.
Families who are able to make the journey to the island and clear the many security hurdles, eagerly await the chance to show support for their loved ones during the ceremony and extended visit. These men have worked hard to not only hone their culinary skills, but to become better fathers and deepen connections to their loved ones over the course of the 10-week program. Photo: Osborne Association.
The book was called Convicted at Birth by Jennifer Wynn and it chronicled her time working in Rikers Island as part of the Osborne Association, an organisation that dedicated itself to changing the lives of incarcerated people for the better.
I admit I was cynical before I turned the first page. I was still hurting and desperately unhappy after what had happened to me. As far as I was concerned the prison experience should be about punishment plain and simple. I wanted those who had wronged me to get a taste of what it was like to wake up every day paralyzed with fear.
As I slowly worked my way through the book I was captivated by the tales of hardship and adversity that Jennifer brought into my world. I was particularly impressed by the way that she presented these men for what they were. They weren’t all innocents wrongly locked behind bars, many of them deserved to be there and she acknowledged this.
However the one thing they all seemed to have in common were horrendous upbringings that left them caught up in a cycle of hopelessness that was impossible to break. As I read the book I began to engage with each character and was in turn uplifted and then brought back to earth by the shuddering highs and lows they experienced.
I finished the book and told my Mother how much I had enjoyed it and that I planned to do two things: Visit New York to meet Jennifer Wynn and attend a Fresh Start Graduation.
Nearly thirteen years later I finger the now dog eared, signed copy of my book and smile as the graduates receive their standing ovation. One by one they pose with the people that have given them this opportunity, the case workers and teachers that work for the Osborne Association.
During my limited time in New York I am lucky enough to sit in on a creative writing class run for newly released graduates of the scheme and family members and visit the Osborne office deep in the Bronx, where hundreds of men and women who would normally be serving short term sentences are instead registered on programmes helping them deal with the effects of long term addiction.
All the attendees I speak to acknowledge that without the Osborne Association their lives would be spiralling further and further out of control. The counsellors and staff members I speak to are humble about the amazing work they do, preferring to reflect back on how well the participants are progressing. Back at the graduation I sit down to some freshly made Macaroni Cheese with a senator who has just delivered a speech telling the class how inspirational they were.
True to the ideals expressed in the book, there is no sugar coating of the hard road that lies ahead. An ex-Fresh Start graduate has returned to speak about how the real battle starts now. Outside the walls lie all the same pitfalls and temptations that have seen these men try and fail so many times to stay out of Rikers. This time however they have the skills, the strength and most importantly the support to help them through the difficult challenges that face anyone being released from prison.
As I watch the last graduate receive his ovation and make his way towards his excited family, a single tear roles down my cheek. I think about my Mother who sadly lost her battle with alcohol four years ago whilst desperately trying achieve her own Fresh Start, I think about the long journey that has led me here, and the decisions I have made that could so easily have led me down the wrong path, but most of all I think about the searing optimism and spirit that I have come across since I had arrived at the Osborne Association office a week previously.
As the London air resounds to victorious athletes singing about “The Land of the Free” I find myself hoping with everything I have that the men I have clapped and cheered today can finally join it for good.
Published originally in The Daily Kos. Edited by Jim Luce.