It was a challenging year for the school on Rikers Island, but Tuesday morning, 73 inmates put on caps and gowns to celebrate at least some of what they've learned in jail. NY1's Lindsey Christ filed the following report.
Sergio Jimenez's mother flew in from Bogota Sunday, determined to see her son graduate with his high school diploma. The 18-year-old had earned his final credits and passed a Regents exam while on Rikers Island, but then, at the last minute, he almost didn't make it to the ceremony.
"Today, they woke me up at four in the morning and they told me that I had to pack my stuff up," Jimenez said. "I went to intake, and from there, they was going to translate me to another prison. So I told them that I was graduating."
The corrections staff called the education staff.
"They took me off the bus," Jimenez said.
It was a quick decision that fits into a larger effort on Rikers Island to make education a priority.
"Your independence starts today," said activist Felipe Luciano.
Rikers' public high school and a smaller adult education program serve an average of 500 students a day. This year, just three of those students earned their high school diploma, though 81 inmates passed the GED exam and another 65 are waiting to find out whether they passed a new test, called TASC. Starting January 1, TASC replaced the GED as the high school equivalency test in New York, and that transition was one of the many challenges facing teachers and students on Rikers Island this year.
Another complication involved the jail that serves adolescent men, which has traditionally included 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds. As of April 21, though, a new state law required 16- and 17-year-olds be held separately from inmates who are 18 and older.
"So the 18-year-olds would have been displaced throughout the department and would not be able to finish their education for the year," said warden James Perrino. "So the department made a stand on keeping them in the same facility, splitting them.
It's a decision he thinks led to many of the 18-year-olds making it to graduation, students like Jimenez.
"It's very hard, very hard, but very happy to be here with him, all these kids who graduate," said Luz Correa, Jimenez's mother.