Two seconds on Google will show you that Rikers Island has a heinous reputation. Last month, "The New York Times" released an article on the notorious jail complex: Rikers Deemed Too Dangerous for Transferred Inmates.
But Steph Segel couldn' t wait to go in.
A skilled artist and recent university graduate, Steph coordinated with Prison Fellowship® Field Director Jose Negron to plan the visit. She would accompany her friend Martha Ackerman—the wife of Prison Fellowship' s president and CEO James J. Ackerman—to offer creative workshops for the men in the Prison Fellowship Academy, a holistic life-transformation program helping prisoners become restored individuals and leaders.
When Steph and Martha stepped through the gates, they weren' t quite expecting what lay ahead.
PICTURING THE PAST
"Where are you today as opposed to where you want to be in the future? Describe that in some way, like a poem or picture."
That's the type of ice-breaker Martha would offer the students in the workshops. Trials, triumphs, darkest secrets all took shape on canvas in a moving display of transparency by the students. Hardly characteristic of Rikers, this was a safe place—a forum to be introspective, to be in a supportive community, and to talk about struggles and future hopes, much like they had done through the Academy.
"We did it based off my own style of painting, with a lot of layering," says Steph. "When there' s a mistake, you can start over. Just go over it again."
And as difficult as that may have been, Steph was surprised and encouraged by the men' s participation. "It surprised me how well-mannered and respectful they were of us, and how open they were to hearing what we had to say," she recalls.
The third and final class, she says, would be most surprising of all—along with the opportunity they had to uniquely commemorate the journeys of these men.
With permission from Rikers officials, Martha and Steph found themselves in a dorm the Academy students shared with participants of similar programs. With the help of Steph' s sister Kate, the ladies traded their usual canvas for a section of cinderblock wall.
Their project was a mural entitled "Create: New Beginnings."
Martha and Steph still marvel at the atmosphere of that room, where men watched from nearby and worship music set a peaceful tone. From right to left, the three painters laid out a five-stage sequence: an incarcerated man who sheds his orange-striped jumpsuit, dons new garb as a businessman, picks up a briefcase, and leaps into his future with a superhero cape flapping behind him.
"The men I spoke to were very grateful for the effort we made to provide this mural," says Jose, who was there to see the project take shape. "They also loved the idea that the man in the mural was shedding his prison clothes, putting on business attire, and flying toward the city. That kind of symbolism makes the interpretation very accessible."
LEAVING THEIR MARK
In just four and a half hours, the mural was complete. Martha and Steph gathered the students together once more.
"I was so proud of them," Martha says through tears. "Doing this creative class, something they aren't comfortable with … it's hard. It's hard to do art, and to be honest and open when you're afraid to mess up. It takes a real man."
At that, several of the burliest men in the room began to cry. Martha decided the best parting gift she could offer was prayer.
"It was one of my favorite moments," says Steph, "just to see how much they wanted to support each other. They have real struggles, real problems, that they can't do much about right now. Praying is the one thing they know they can do."
Before leaving, Martha and Steph outlined the silhouettes of each man on a canvas. Each man filled in his own, and below, they signed their names.
The piece will be shown at their Academy graduation on June 6.
"I left that day feeling relieved, and it's a difficult feeling to describe," Steph adds, "because nobody can see the mural except those guys. But I hope it meant something. I hope it serves a greater purpose than I can even see."