New York remains one of only two states in the U.S. that prosecutes and incarcerates youth ages 16 and 17 as adults in the criminal justice system – yet they are young enough to grow out of their shoes during the weeks and months in custody.
The concept for Friends developed at the New York City alternative high school located on Rikers Island, known then as Island Academy. Friends of Island Academy (Friends) was founded in 1990 by a collaboration between education and social service staff on Rikers and community-based advocates who sought to address the recidivism rates, untapped potential and disproportionate confinement of youth of color who attend school on Rikers Island every year.
In our earliest years, the leading cause of death among black male adolescents in New York City was homicide, and the average daily population at Rikers Island was more than double what it is today. Young people spoke about the importance of having proper clothing to attend funerals, and mothers and grandmothers expressed relief when their children were incarcerated, as they believed jail might be safer than the streets. Entire communities of African American men were vanishing, as per capita incarceration of young African American males climbed at an exponential rate.
Friends of Island Academy became a place where youth could find a community of peers and advocates who would support them and believed deeply in their potential as they rebuilt their lives after jail. Today, approximately 600 young people (ages 16-18) are held on Rikers Island on any given day. Because of Friends’ pioneering work in adolescent reentry services, we are recognized for our expertise, tenure and effectiveness weith a very challenging youth population.
For 27 years, Friends of Island Academy has specialized in serving this vulnerable and underserved group of young people. For 27 years, our Youth Members’ incredible strength and resilience have inspired us and driven our work.
A group picture from the late 1990’s, with Youth Members and former Friends of Island Academy staff member Clinton Lacey (second from left) .