An image of some of the facilities at Rikers. CNN/ COURTESY
By Anna Segota, Staff Writer
The future of the E3MC program is being called into question as the debate and conversation around the possible closure of Rikers Island is brought into the spotlight in New York politics.
Founded by Andrew Skotnicki, Ph.D., professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, the E3MC program aims to allow currently and formerly incarcerated persons access to higher education to combat inequality.
Each week, MC faculty and students travel to Rikers Island for a class alongside a group of inmates. This joint program enables prisoners to earn college credits toward a bachelor’s degree. The program has been in operation for the past 11 years.
“I did not want to do this program unless I was able to bring our students from the main campus into contact with the students at Rikers because I knew that once you see the face of the suffering… they stop being statistics,” Skotnicki said. “We’ve changed the lives of many people. Many of our former Manhattan students are now working in social reform, criminal justice agencies and reentry agencies. So I know it’s had a profound impact.”
According to the students and professors alike, the program is a transformative and inspiring experience.
Deirdre O’Leary, Ph.D., is currently teaching her first semester at Rikers’ with Skotnicki at the Rose Center, the women’s prison at Rikers.
“I’ve never had a class where everyone is just so present, so attentive to what everyone in the class is saying,” O’Leary said. “These are people going through incredibly difficult times and they show up every week with the work done, participating, and talking. The dynamic in the classroom is one I’ve been privileged to be a part of.”
While the program has been able to help and inspire many, its future is uncertain due to the possible closure of Rikers, a complex issue that has outspoken activists on either side.
The NYC Department of Corrections was the first to establish a specialized education unit for incarcerated people, but current conditions within Rikers have been described as lacking and even dangerous.
Gabriela Sandoval, a senior at MC, spoke about her experience and the conditions of the prison, describing the intensive labor that inmates do for very little pay, and the inhospitable living situation that many must deal with.
“Some of these women live in an empty room with just a cot and that’s all they have, there’s no type of privacy,” Sandoval said. “Even with commissary most of those girls are working for companies that pay them maybe 20 cents to 50 cents an hour…it was really disturbing to see that”.
The program largely takes place within the school building at Rikers, which has been described as similar to a public high school. However, the incarcerated students have spoken about the pain and suffering they face in the jail system and the abuse they have faced from employees.
While the corruption and decay of Rikers’ infrastructure has brought heavy criticism, some are unsure if the living conditions would be much different at other facilities. While especially egregious at Rikers, similar circumstances have been described all over, in many different prisons.
“I’m not opposed to closing Rikers, its isolation and the collective cultural impact of an institution that has been functioning practically in secrecy for over a century has left a generally negative atmosphere in which to work,” Skotnicki said when asked about the possible closure. “What will be different when they move the Rikers population to facilities in Queens, Brooklyn, or the Bronx? I’m not certain that’s going to improve it.”
While the future is uncertain, the program will continue, with Skotnicki teaching two classes this upcoming semester, one at Rikers and another at the Westchester County Jail. Those involved have praised the program and described the merits of participating in it as life-changing.
“We demystify a lot of stereotypes, a lot of prejudices, every bigot is just another person who lacks the opportunity to see how fundamentally alike he or she is to the person that they hate,” Skotnicki said.“I know in my heart that fundamental human compassion is not something we lack, we simply lack the opportunities for us to be able to discover it within ourselves.”