It’s graduation season — and that extends to the city’s jails. On Rikers Island, inmates can earn their G.E.D. through the East River Academy.
Rebecca Figueroa was not sure she’d ever walk across a commencement stage.
“I stopped going to school at 15 years old — I dropped out,” she said.
“Rebecca comes to school every day, and look, you’re going down in the books now,” East River Academy Principal Tonya Threadgill said as she presented Figueroa with an award.
“I’ve accomplished something I’ve been trying to accomplish for years and procrastinating against it,” Figueroa said in an interview.
Figueroa has been in and out of the Rose M. Singer Center, the Rikers Island jail for women, for the last two years, and according to records, is presently there on an assault charge.
“I was a very troubled inmate. I was always fighting, always getting into it with inmates, other officers — a lot of them didn’t have faith that I could do it or accomplish it. Some told me to give up, some told me I’m not going to do it and I proved them wrong: I did it, I haven’t gotten into any trouble since I’ve been attending school,” she told NY1.
In the audience: her mother Christina, who, after months of some tough love, was there to surprise her.
“I didn’t condone the behavior and reasons why she got here. I didn’t support as to visits, commissary, I’m not putting nobody’s money — you got to learn the hard way that coming in and out is not cute, and this is not the lifestyle to be in,” Christina Figueroa said. “But if they have the resources while you’re here, utilize them, and make something out of something.”
Now her daughter has done that.
“A little moral support don’t hurt,” Figueroa said.
Her daughter said seeing her mother at the ceremony was “an amazing feeling.”
“I didn’t think anyone was coming today, but she did come and I really really appreciate it,” she said. “I’m really grateful for her just to be here and by my mom.”
Also in the audience — Mayor Eric Adams, who shared the story of his own arrest as a teenager, and the way he sought to make it up to his mother.
“She saw her baby break the law, went to policing, enforce the law, went to Albany to write the law, now he’s the mayor of the city of New York,” Adams said.
Lamar Dobbins, 21, who dropped out of high school as a senior, says he went back to class in order to make something of the time he’s spending incarcerated. Court records show he pleaded guilty to attempted robbery.
“The choice was there, and I wasn’t really doing anything else with my time,” Dobbins said. “I felt like the smart thing to do would be to at least try to get my high school diploma or GED.”
There were naysayers. But he’s glad he didn’t listen to them.
“A lot of people will say it’s something we shouldn’t do, like you’re wasting your time. But if you’re actually trying to go home and start something new, and not just trying to go home and come back here, it’s not a waste of time,” he told NY1.
It’s a message corrections staff say they try to send, too.
“While you’re here, you can still take advantage of the programs we have, so you know that your time away from your families, you were still able to accomplish something,” Captain Christina Williams said.
For Rebecca Figueroa, it’s an accomplishment she’ll never forget. She’s looking forward to putting her G.E.D. to use when she leaves jail — planning to be a good parent to her children, hoping to study culinary arts and becoming a chef.
“Besides from my children, this is the second proudest moment of my life,” she said.