Arts & Culture
Friends incorporates the arts as both an emotional outlet and an entry point into the organization for incarcerated youth.
In 2012, Messiah Ramkissoon (Director of Arts and Culture at Friends) launched regular poetry nights in the chapel of the Robert N. Davoren Complex (RNDC) on Rikers Island for 16-18 year old male adolescents.
Youth are presented themes to write about in preparation for the event. For example, one month the theme was “Who Am I?” – delving into the self-identity crisis many teens enter upon admission to Rikers Island. It allowed participating youth to ask themselves questions like, “Who was I before joining a gang?” or “What is my identity beyond a jail number?”
Community guest poets and artists are invited to share the stage with the incarcerated participants, giving them a strong sense of validation since many have never performed or spoken before an audience. The guests spend time with the participants afterwards, answering questions about their creative process, publishing procedures, writing tips, etc.
Friends has since hosted over 10 of these events on Rikers Island, which have been embraced by Captains and Deputies at the facility. In addition to building confidence and community among Rikers youth, these events connect the incarcerated to Friends of Island Academy, so they know where they can find mentorship, employment, educational resources, housing and medical support upon their release.
Messiah Ramkissoon has taught art therapy, cognitive-based therapy and has worked with the incarcerated for over 8 years in DC, Baltimore and NYC jails. He is a renowned international artist/poet, a three time winner on the legendary Showtime at The Apollo, and has appeared in programs with some of the world’s most powerful names from Patti LaBelle to President Obama.
Cello Without Walls
On Rikers Island, the East River Academy provides mandatory high school classes to inmates ages 16 and 17. Unlike most New York City public high schools, however, the school on Rikers rarely provides arts or music programs. Meanwhile, research has demonstrated the beneficial effects of music in controlling emotions, especially anger and aggression in high-risk teenagers, and on reducing anxiety, stress, anger, and agitation in general.
In 2014, Jacob Cohen received a grant through the Transform Today competition to play music in correctional facilities throughout the United States. He worked and performed at Sing Sing prison, Graterford Correctional Facility and Eastern Correctional Facility, culminating in a TED X Talk at Sing Sing in December.
Later in the year, Jacob partnered with Friends of Island Academy to perform the cello on Rikers Island. He performed for the first time in November 2014. The performance was overwhelmingly successful, with young people and facility staff immediately asking whether he would return.
Since then, Jacob has played music at different facilities on Rikers Island countless times, accompanied by Friends’ youth advocates. His music is adaptable: when playing background music he can accentuate speeches and group meetings (important when we try to inspire young people to examine and change their patterns of behavior); he can produce abstract music that breaks the monotony of jail facilities, and group participatory music for spoken word poets, rappers and other artists to collaborate with. The strongly positive reception of Jacob’s music has driven home the enormous need for musical expression and beauty in the midst of Rikers Island.