Rikers Island is one of the last places you'd expect to hear stories of hope and forgiveness. But in this week's Insider, Prison Fellowship® president and chief executive officer James Ackerman takes us behind the walls of the notorious New York City jail complex to meet the newest graduates of Prison Fellowship Academy.
"I learned to forgive myself, as well as … to forgive others," shares one graduate about his time at Rikers. "I became a better man. I started walking in faith."
Prison Fellowship Academies take men and women through a holistic life transformation. They are mentored by Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers to become restored individuals both inside and outside of prison.
Each graduate connects with a mentor, explains Ernie Booth, plant manager for the "New York Times" and a volunteer with Prison Fellowship.
The program specifically targets criminal thinking and behavior, life skills, addictions, victim impact, and prosocial culture change. The goal of the Academy is to invest in prisoners who have leadership potential, empowering them to develop and serve as positive peer mentors and supporters of constructive prison culture throughout prison systems.
Those who complete the program and are preparing for release will have the opportunity to connect to post-release resources and support on the outside.
"I said to them, 'Okay, gentlemen, this is just the start,'" says Booth. "And they said, 'Yes, we know. We’ll see everyone on the outside.'"
"This can become a safe place," explains Kimberly, one of the high-impact volunteers at Rikers. "They dive a little deeper and ask the hard questions of why they were doing what they were doing."
"They really need a strength greater than their own," agrees Jose Negron, Prison Fellowship's northeast field director.
Prison Fellowship has been present at Rikers Island for the last five years and continues to see growth.