Arts for Incarcerated High School Students on Rikers Island
by Paul Auerbach

When Island Academy opened in 1985, we planned for our Arts program to be a major component of the curriculum. The original staff included no less than two visual arts teachers and one music instructor. These classes, however, soon disappeared as all three arts teachers were gone from our school by second school year. The visual arts and music classes were enjoyed by the students and some interesting visual creations were produced. One very talented youngster (Pablo V.) won a citywide contest with a poster he designed promoting New York City tourism.

For the next several years, there was little official Arts instruction given at the school; however, artistic creativity often rises up and appears among young people even when it is not actively encouraged; thus, there have always been artists present at Island Academy. There are always graffiti artists, cartoonists, rappers, and singers. Poetry also constantly appears. Since 1987, visits by the Waterways Project helped us tap this outflow of writing talent and provided a means of publishing the students' writings.

The first official re-introduction of a visual arts program at Island Academy began with the installation of our print shop under the direction of J. Ashton Brathwaite. In his print shop, materials are available for the students to design and print chapbooks, postcards, stationery, writing pads, posters, and Academy News. Brathwaite observed, "Art affects their entire experience at the school. Because of their love for hands-on activity, they do better in their academic classes too. The students feel good when they are leaving the print shop because they have just finished something that was satisfying to them. Throughout the day they look forward to doing art. It is the strong inclination towards a hands-on program so many of our students have rather than towards an academic program." According to Brathwaite, the students often use an opportunity to produce art as a means of strengthening ties with their loved ones back home. They work diligently on an art project in order to create gifts. Art also seems to inspire a healthy competition in his class, as students strive to outdo one another in producing the best art.

In the last several years, we have continued to re-instate the Arts as accredited classes at the school. We now have a music program where students learn to play saxophones, clarinets, drums, symbols and trumpets. The students are instructed regarding music notation, harmony and other elements of music theory. The music instruction culminates with a band performance presented at a school assembly program. According to music teacher, Ed Williams, "The students look forward to these performances. It makes them feel special, and they enjoy the admiration of the other students. You have to see their faces when they do something well. They feel pride and a sense of accomplishment." Music instructor William Bennett reports, "The band has had an enriching effect of the students' lives. One student told me, 'I always wanted to play the trombone, but I never thought I would get the chance to.' Learning an instrument has built up their confidence and taught them a lot about the need for discipline. Several students have told me that now they aspire to become professional musicians." When a student expresses a desire to continue studying music after discharge, he is referred to an outside instructor by our music teachers. One young man, who learned to play trumpet for our graduation assembly, is now playing trumpet in college and is minoring in music.

One remarkably effective Arts program offered by our school lasted for only one year, while Rod Brundidge was assigned to Island Academy. His course was entitled, "Performing and Visual Arts". Students were taught the basic audio-visual techniques used in broadcasting, such as the use of the video camera and editing videos. The end product was a twenty minute film called, "The Streets of New York." The students wrote the script, made a story board, and performed and filmed the movie. The theme of the production was that street life can get a youngster in trouble and might even lead to death. While all the students were excited about the assignment, one student, Sharon C., actually established an acting career as a result of this course. After his discharge, he pursued an acting career and was featured in the movie, "The Substitute," as well as several television series. When interviewed by a New York newspaper, Sharon attributed his interest in acting to the class he attended while in jail.

Since 1995, I have been involved with the Manhattan Theatre Club in a writing project called, "Write On The Edge." In this program, directors and actors from the Manhattan Theatre Club visit our school and instruct the students about writing short plays. After eight sessions, when the students' scripts are honed into their final forms, the work is professionally produced and performed before a school-wide audience. The joy and pride experienced by the student writers after they see their work come to life on the stage is one of the high points of my school year. Several students who participated in "Write On The Edge" expressed an interest in continuing to write and even to one day become professionals. The quality of their work is sometimes surprisingly good. This year a script written by young Kiron P. was one of eight runner-up winners in a citywide contest sponsored by Young Playwrights. One young man, Dean D., cited his experience with "Write On The Edge" as a major factor in his decision to turn his life around. Dean attended Bronx Community College and was part of its student government.

Another student, Fred F., found new respect for himself via a writing project involving the creation of the Rikers Review magazine (sponsored by Fresh Start). Fred discovered in class that he was a talented writer. Since discharge, he has been a featured poet in several Greenwich Village poetry cafes and has even had two poems translated and published in a Swedish poetry journal. Fred is now president of the student government at LaGuardia Community College and is the chief editor of the school's literary magazine (which often features his own pieces).

Waterways has been a key component in our school's poetry writing program. Throughout the school year, students are invited to submit a minimum of ten poems which are published as poetry chapbooks. These chapbooks are distributed throughout the school, and the student poets receive several copies to give to family members and friends on the outside. The themes of these books are often of a surprisingly philosophical bent: meditations on the purpose of life and the nature of good and evil; other recurring themes are love for mothers, girlfriends, and God. Much of their writing also expresses their fear of and fascination with street life: crime, drugs and revenge.

While Island Academy's Arts programs have often proven to be deeply satisfying and successful to all involved, too often they are offered only to students who already have the self-confidence to volunteer to participate. Because of the special nature of most of these projects, only a minority of students have benefited from them. One wonders what artistic expressions might come forth should the creativity of all of our students be more regularly encouraged and tapped. Hopefully, Island Academy will come to offer these "special" Arts projects to a larger number in our student population. (1998)

Ten Penny Players