IN THE VAN: TEENS LEAVING RIKERS AVOID QUEENS PLAZA

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Release from jail has long meant a 3 a.m. drop-off at a desolate Queens location, for teens and adults alike. A new initiative offers young people a better ride.

Colin Broadus will never forget the day he left jail. After a ten-month stay at Rikers Island, Broadus, then 17, was dropped off in the middle of Queens Plaza at 3 a.m. “It’s pretty crazy,” said Broadus. “You see recent releasers, prostitutes, drug dealers, panhandlers. It is one of those places you’d least want to be after hours.”

Juvenile offenders will soon be able to avoid it. By late July, young releasees will for the first time have the option of a van ride straight from Rikers to Friends of Island Academy, a nonprofit organization that helps youths who have previously been incarcerated. In the midtown office, they’ll get breakfast and be offered counseling, education or job training services.

And that, says Beth Navon, executive director of Friends of Island Academy who created the program, could save city money and curb crime, too. Currently, eight to ten teenagers are dropped at Queens Plaza each week; 60 percent are rearrested within 12 months, and each rearrested person will cost the city an average of $60,000 a year, according to the city’s corrections department. “The most economic way is to stop them going back to jail. That’s what we are aiming at,” said Navon.

The city has endured intense criticism in recent years for dropping inmates at the desolate plaza–the transit hub closest to Rikers–with no more than a Metrocard. The most prominent critique came from mental health advocates who filed a class action lawsuit in 1999, seeking to require the city to provide post-jail care and planning for mentally ill inmates.

Advocates settled the suit in 2003. Additional pressure from elected officials compelled the city Department of Correction (DOC) to start the Rikers Island Discharge Enhancement program, which helps inmates work out a post-jail plan with nonprofits. Since then, several groups serving adult inmates have started to pick up their clients from Rikers and drive them directly to the training program or job sites.

But little has been done to address the needs of teenagers, says Navon. Indeed, New York is one of just three states that jails adolescents and adults together; sentenced inmates 16 or older share cells with older convicts. “They don’t want to go back to the streets, they don’t want to sell drugs,” said Navon. “But these are kids. They don’t know there are options.”

The DOC agrees that Queens Plaza in the wee hours isn’t an ideal place for teens. “There are a lot of opportunities particularly for young people to cause themselves problems and we’ll bring them back to jail,” said Kathleen Coughlin, deputy commissioner of the DOC. Indeed, Coughlin says that with a tight budget, DOC hasn’t had the resources to take on the issue; Navon’s van was purchased by a grant from a private foundation.

It’s looking pretty good to young people at Rikers. After weeks of recruitment visits from Broadus, now a case manager and outreach coordinator for Friends of Island Academy, 40 young people have signed up. About half of them will leave jail this summer. “At least they won’t be dumped in the harsh environment,” said Broadus. “No kid should be experiencing that any more.”

–Xiaoqing Rong