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At Rikers Island, Investing in Decision-Making Lessons for Teens in Trouble

April 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports on efforts to keep young people from returning to New York's Rikers Island once they've served their time. A privately financed pubic program utilizes evidence-based behavioral therapy to imbue teens with a sense of greater control over their lives and decisions.

GWEN IFILL: Now the second of a two-part look at efforts to prevent felons from returning to New York’s Rikers Island jail once they have served their time.

Last night, NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman reported on a new way of creating private financing for such public programs.

Tonight, he explores how the program hopes to keep participants from ending up in jail again.

It’s part of his ongoing reporting Making Sense of financial news.

PAUL SOLMAN: High school on New York City’s Rikers Island, the world’s largest jail. Though they make up just 6 percent of the population, the teen inmates here pose some of the biggest problems.

DORA SCHRIRO, New York City Department of Corrections: They contribute to 28 percent of all of the fights, which is the most common form of misconduct in a jail setting.

PAUL SOLMAN: Dora Schriro is New York City corrections commissioner.

DORA SCHRIRO: This group, one of the areas where they are terrifically weak is in decision-making and problem-solving. And their propensity to impulsively rely on fights, rather than insight, really contributes to how they got here and why it is that every one out of two are likely to come back pretty quick.

PAUL SOLMAN: In other words, nearly 50 percent are back in jail within a year of their release. That’s why New York City officials have just launched a program that puts every 16-to-18-year-old entering Rikers almost as soon as the bars slam shut into a class called moral reconation therapy, or MRT, a form of behavioral modification to improve decision-making.

JAFAR ABBAS, Osborne Association: If you can go back in time and change one thing, what would it be, what year would you go back to, and why?

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, cognitive therapy like MRT isn’t new; it’s been around for decades. But it is new on Rikers. Also new, the cash-strapped city is using an innovative private investment vehicle called a social impact bond, a type of loan, to fund it.

JAFAR ABBAS: We’re going start from here.

PAUL SOLMAN: MRT starts small: drawing pictures of happier times, like a real or imagined skydiving jump, talking about feelings.

STUDENT: When I get nervous, I feel like I want to shut down and not do anything.

PAUL SOLMAN: Because they’re minors, we can’t show student faces.

It’s all part of a 12-step process that moves from the most basic psychological concepts to higher goals. Studies show that MRT can reduce recidivism by 20 percent to 30 percent, and the more steps they master, the more likely these kids will be to stay out of jail.

JAFAR ABBAS: You got everything working with you, and you’re moving in a positive direction now.

PAUL SOLMAN: Jafar Abbas and Karimah Nichols are counselors with the Osborne Association, the nonprofit hired by New York to run MRT on Rikers.

JAFAR ABBAS: It starts out slow with pictures and stuff, but as it progresses through 12 steps, is that they get more difficult, and that’s what we want. We want you to get out of the box that you put yourself in and start looking for higher things.

KARIMAH NICHOLS, Osborne Association: Just the fact that they were even willing to talk in group, like, that is a big step for someone at that age. That’s a sign of real maturity.

PAUL SOLMAN: As when this boy was asked to recount his best of times.

STUDENT: One is winning my first basketball championship when I was in middle school. Second is, I got my first job. Third is when I got my middle school diploma, and when I went to high school, and got my first computer.

PAUL SOLMAN: And worst of times?

STUDENT: First is jail. Two is going to court and not knowing what is going to happen or when you go home, the bus — the jail bus ride, being in a place where you’re treated like an animal. You’re literally caged up most of the time of the day.

KARIMAH NICHOLS: Do you notice the connection between the best times in your life and the worst times? What’s the relationship between those two, the sort of pattern?

STUDENT: Well the pattern with the best things of my life is there’s little things I never thought was big until I came here. And jail, I can’t control the outcome that’s going on when I’m here.

SUSAN GOTTESFELD, Osborne Association: None of these kids want to be in jail, and our message to them is, you have control.

PAUL SOLMAN: Susan Gottesfeld helps run the Osborne Association.

SUSAN GOTTESFELD: Cognitive behavioral therapy is not a coddling, huggy, touchy, feely, fuzzy intervention. It’s an evidence-based therapy that works for lots and lots of different people, for lots and lots of different things.

PAUL SOLMAN: What’s the key to the cognitive change?

SUSAN GOTTESFELD: So, if we want to change outcomes, we have to change behavior, and if we want to change behavior for the long run, we have to change the way we think, right? And for a lot of these kids, it’s a realization: I can choose to do that in a good way or I can choose to do that in a negative way.

PAUL SOLMAN: But will it keep enough kids from coming back to Rikers to save the city enough money to pay back investors? Let’s face it. Transformation doesn’t come easy.

At Rikers, says Commissioner Schriro:

DORA SCHRIRO: You never know for sure until they day they leave how long they’re going to be there. So, we really needed to figure out how to make the most out of every day, not wait for our next class to start, grab them, you know, the minute they get in, engage them right away, and keep them engaged right to the time that they go back out to the streets.

PAUL SOLMAN: Those released from Rikers have the option of continuing their 12-step therapy at offices in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Dwayne Arthur has been seeing counselor Victoria Phillips since getting out of a two-week stint at Rikers in January.

WOMAN: For the ice breaker today I want to know, what are some of the things that you try to control, but can’t control?

STUDENT: First is my urges. Sometimes, you can’t control your emotions.

WOMAN: OK. Sometimes, you can’t control your emotions. But can you control the actions that follow the emotions?


WOMAN: And since you have been here, like, are we starting to see that you are controlling your actions?


PAUL SOLMAN: But who has he hurt when he couldn’t control them?

Dwayne shared his workbook with us.

STUDENT: The first one is my mother, and I’m her son, and I have damaged this relationship by letting her down.

PAUL SOLMAN: Because you wound up at Rikers?


PAUL SOLMAN: And what else does it say?

STUDENT: To be a good, successful son. That’s my goal in this relationship.

PAUL SOLMAN: Dwayne’s mother, Sharon Goveia, had watched our interview.

What did he mean, did you think, by that he had let you down?

SHARON GOVEIA, Mother: Because he knows I have high expectations for him. I want him to be something. I want him to, you know, strive and be the best that he can be, you know, so …

PAUL SOLMAN: And being in Rikers is not a part of that story.

SHARON GOVEIA: Exactly. But I think he learned from it.

PAUL SOLMAN: But to learn, you have got to attend. It takes Dwayne Arthur more than an hour to get here.

STUDENT: People can only help themselves. But if they come here, it’s going to help them.

PAUL SOLMAN: Of 100 people who take this program, what percentage, how many do you think wouldn’t, will not go back to Rikers?

STUDENT: If they came to the program? Ninety of them, 90 out of 100.

PAUL SOLMAN: But how many actually come?

When this taping was first scheduled in December, we had lined up another boy named Carl to interview. But we had to reschedule for February, and by then Carl had stopped coming regularly. That raises a red flag to social impact bond skeptics like Mark Rosenman.

MARK ROSENMAN, Caring to Change: I think, ultimately, it will result in creaming.

PAUL SOLMAN: Creaming?

MARK ROSENMAN: Cherry-picking participants, selecting the easiest people to work with. And no matter how well-intentioned you are, if you know ultimately that being able to repay your investors is dependent on how well you meet a narrow benchmark, the temptation of beginning to operate in a way that is more likely to produce those outcomes, I think, is significant.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, gaming the system?

MARK ROSENMAN: It will be gaming the system.

PAUL SOLMAN: But, as Susan Gottesfeld points out, the MRT program, and the social impact bond issue that funds it, seek to reach every young person on Rikers Island, period.

And the evaluation will look at whether, overall, it reduces recidivism or it doesn’t.

The skeptic would say, these are great goals, but you’re likely not to achieve them.

SUSAN GOTTESFELD: Well, I would say that I believe we will. We see change every day in our classrooms. And, you know, in a year from now or two years from now, we will really see for sure.

PAUL SOLMAN: And so we will. Stay tuned.