Non-profit organization offers liberal arts classes to inmates serving time in Suffolk correctional facilities

Law enforcement agencies and groups that help rehabilitate inmates hope a new program offering liberal arts classes to inmates at Riverhead and Yaphank can teach them critical thinking skills that could help break early in the cycle of recurrence.

Sound Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization based in Riverhead, has launched a college-level liberal arts program specifically designed for men and women in Suffolk County correctional facilities. Subjects taught include humanities, sociology, literature, creative writing, history and other subjects, as well as vocational skills, to those in temporary incarceration facilities who have no may not have had access to such resources before.

The goal is to help them avoid future incarceration by learning skills to help them get their lives back on track, according to Kerry Spooner, founder and president of the association.

“By cultivating empathy and honing their written and oral communication skills, students become better advocates for themselves,” she said.

About 744 inmates were being held at Riverhead and Yaphank facilities as of the end of December, according to Spooner. Anyone wishing to learn can enroll in the courses.

Spooner told Newsday that such programs are not normally available at temporary correctional facilities like those in Suffolk County — where the average stay is 37 days, according to the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office — since jail stays are longer in the state correctional system, allowing educational institutions to offer college courses that inmates can take while serving their sentence.

By introducing programs that foster critical thinking, self-esteem, and other skills, Spooner hopes these resources can change the lives of these students so they can successfully reintegrate into society and turn away from crime.

On Friday, Suffolk County Sheriff, Sheriff Errol Toulon, told Newsday that since 85% of inmates at Suffolk correctional facilities typically return to their communities, equipping them with skills to potentially avoid future criminal behavior is an important step. in their rehabilitation.

“It’s very important to us while individuals are incarcerated to not only keep them busy, but also to give them opportunities that will prepare them when they leave our detention,” Toulon said. “I think it is an obligation for us while they are housed here to try to prepare them as well as possible for different opportunities so that they do not re-offend and our re-offending rate in Suffolk County is reduced. “

Elizabeth A. Justesen, community outreach manager for the Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County, said inmates often come from economically distressed areas where arts and humanities programs are being cut in local schools.

“Studies show that these types of classes promote positive brain growth and can balance the core curriculum,” said Justesen. “These classes can open people’s imaginations to see themselves differently in the world. It opens up a new realm that may have been overlooked in them and can trigger new thought processes and can give them a new outlook. of the world.”

Serena Martin-Liguori, executive director of New Hour for Women & Children-LI, a Brentwood-based nonprofit, said such programs can also benefit women behind bars who have families and children.

“Behind every incarcerated mother and father is a child, and knowing that parents behind bars have the opportunity to learn, grow and change is really what restorative justice is all about,” Martin-Liguori said. . “And that means their children will benefit when they return to the community from the education they received.”

A TASTE OF COLLEGE

  • The program, designed for inmates of short-term correctional facilities, offers six course categories. An introductory course, “Just Think”, helps students develop creative and critical thinking skills. Other courses taught include a financial literacy course called “Dollars and Sense” and the literature of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, among others.
  • As they plan to expand the program to other correctional facilities on Long Island, Spooner said his nonprofit plans to partner with several universities and colleges to provide teachers, course materials and other student resources.
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