At Friends, we strive to break cycles of incarceration by providing limitless opportunities for growth. We harness positive development practices to champion the strengths of our participants as they overcome obstacles and transform their lives and communities for the better.
The concept to create Friends developed in the late 1980’s at the alternative high school located in one of the facilities on Rikers Island housing sentenced adolescents. At that time, the leading cause of death among black male adolescents in New York City was homicide and the average daily population at Rikers Island was almost double what it is today (approximately 21,000 vs. 13,000 inmates). In the earliest years of our organization, young people spoke about the importance of having proper clothing to attend funerals, and mothers and grandmothers expressed relief when a son/grandson was incarcerated, as they believed their child would be safer in jail than on the street. The disproportionate per capita incarceration of young African American males was climbing
at an exponential rate.
In the past 22 years of operation, we have seen a shift toward progressive approaches to deterrence and punishment. The need for effective reentry services and supports became a legislative and executive priority around the nation. In 1990, Friends was a pioneer in New York City reentry (a term which did not exist then) by focusing on this specific population of youth in an adult justice system and beginning the reentry process inside, prior to an individual’s release. Youth as young as 16 are prosecuted as adults in New York’s criminal justice system. About 800 per year attend school while they are serving sentences in jail; they represent the pool in which we focus all our efforts. We remain unique in the targeted approach to our work.
Friends was founded in 1990 at the Austin MacCormick Alternative High School on Rikers Island – known then as Island Academy. Friends was rooted in collaboration between committed education and social service staff who sought to address the recidivism rates, untapped potential and minority overrepresentation among thousands of adolescents who attended school on Rikers Island each year. Our services have broadened over time, but our core mission remains the same. For the past twenty-one years, our core source of youth membership has been non-mandated, post-sentence adolescents released from Rikers Island.
Nine years ago, we expanded our services in order to break intergenerational cycles of incarceration by providing support to fathers. Our Friends 2 Fathers program, operating out of a community center in the Parkside Houses in the Bronx, provides services to noncustodial fathers in order to improve parenting skills, address domestic violence and anger management issues, and facilitate employment and child support.