Inside Rikers Island: Inmates learn skills for the outside world

Rows on rows of razor barbed wire around the GMDC building on Rikers Island say "jail" bigger than any sign. Inside, a gated checkpoint secures the lockdown area. Fox 5 got an exclusive look inside the jail that is the temporary home to about 400 men, ages 18 to 21. They've all been arrested but the vast majority of them have not yet had their day in court.

For some detainees, time served on Rikers is their initiation into the prison pipeline. For a growing number of others, it is a wake-up call before it is too late.

"I went from a negative mindset to a positive mindset," inmate Eric Patterson said. "Like I went from me thinking the world was against me to now I want to be part of the world. So I think that's a step forward." Patterson has earned several job certifications.

"It gave me an opportunity to find myself because growth as an actor and growth as a human being is synonymous," former inmate Trey Cruz said. He is a Stella Adler acting scholarship winner.

Inside this high-security facility over the last two years, the Department of Correction has been arming inmates with a variety of career skills so they won't succumb to the negative influence of the streets once they get out. So far, about 1,500 former inmates left Rikers with job training. Deputy Commissioner Winette Jackson said it is an urgent priority.

"A large part of our job, our mission, is to really help, correct and rehabilitate the individuals who are in the custody of the department," Jackson said.

Officer Goodloe brought us to the Peace Center, where a lot of the classes take place. Inside the center classrooms is a different world. These inmates are learning the basics of carpentry and getting OSHA certifications. They'll be job-ready in background-friendly construction fields when they get out.

"As we see, we're in a carpentry shop. For some of these young men it's the first time they've produced something positive in their life," said Denise Upshaw, the director of the DOC's Trading Futures program.

"Our participants are one step closer to securing employment versus someone on the outside who doesn't have a certification," said Jermaine Pilgrim, the program director of industry recognized training at Rikers Island.

The special programming also includes digital literacy classes, culinary training, and the basics of car mechanics, taught by a former car repair shop manager who is now a correction officer.

"Majority of them, sadly, they've been told they can't do nothing much, they're nothing," said Officer Caetano, the auto mechanic instructor. "But here I give them the confidence that they are able to learn."

While the push is on for more programming at Rikers Island, the reality is that security remains a top priority. That means safety for the inmates and for the correction officers. From 2015 to 2016, violent incidents involving 18- to 21-year-old men dropped a whopping 58 percent. That coincided with the implementation of the new training programs.

"The data show us that approximately 80 percent of the individuals in our custody will be home within a year," Deputy Commissioner Jackson said. "And if we don't try to provide skills and services that assist individuals with the reasons why they came here to begin with then we're looking at a larger problem for our community."

Keep in mind that about 80 percent of the inmates have been arrested, but not convicted of crimes. 

Since 2015 the Correction Department has been under a federal court order to reduce the use of excessive force against inmates. But the correction officers union, COBA, said the emphasis on inmates' rights has caused a dramatic spike in attacks against officers.  

We brought all sides together for the first ever town hall inside Rikers Island with inmates, correction officers who are part of the reforms, and hip hop superstar Fat Joe, Fox 5's special guest. Joe said he stays close to the community and did not hold back.

"I'm just an independent voice, and I'm just thinking about the viewers who's watching, if everybody's going to sing 'Kum ba yah,' they want to know what's going on with the 2,000 guys that maybe somebody's getting their face cut," Fat Joe said during the town hall.

"Street Soldiers: Inside Rikers" airs Friday, June 21, 2017, at 10:30 p.m. on Fox 5.