Kerry Spooner, president and founder of Sound Justice Initiative, left,...

Kerry Spooner, president and founder of Sound Justice Initiative, left, is escorted by Undersheriff Steven Kuehhas to teach inmates at the Riverhead Correctional Facility on Saturday. Credit: Randee Daddona

Law enforcement agencies and groups that help rehabilitate incarcerated individuals are hoping a new program offering liberal arts courses to inmates in Riverhead and Yaphank can teach them critical thinking skills that may help break the cycle of recidivism early.

Sound Justice Initiative, a Riverhead-based nonprofit, has started a college-level liberal arts program specifically designed for men and women in Suffolk County correctional facilities. Subjects taught include the humanities, sociology, literature, creative writing, history and other topics, as well as job skills, to those in temporary incarceration settings who may not have had access to such resources before.

The goal is to help them avoid future incarceration by acquiring skills to help them get their lives back on track, according to Kerry Spooner, the nonprofit’s founder and president.

"By cultivating empathy and honing written and oral communication skills, students become stronger advocates for themselves," she said.

Approximately 744 inmates were being held at the Riverhead and Yaphank facilities as of late December, according to Spooner. Anyone who wants to learn is eligible to enroll in the courses.

Spooner told Newsday such programs are not normally available in temporary correctional facilities like those in Suffolk County — where the average stay is 37 days, according to the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office — since prison stays are longer in the state correctional system, allowing educational facilities to offer college courses that ​inmates can complete while serving their sentences.

By introducing programs promoting critical thinking, self-esteem and other skills, Spooner hopes such resources can be life-changing for those students so they can reintegrate successfully into society and turn away from crime.

Suffolk County Sherriff Errol Toulon told Newsday on Friday that since 85% of inmates in Suffolk’s correctional facilities usually return to their communities, giving them skills to potentially avoid future criminal behavior is an important step in their rehabilitation.

"It’s very important for us while individuals are incarcerated to not only keep them busy, but give them opportunities that will prepare them when they leave our custody," Toulon said. "I feel it’s an obligation on us while they’re housed here to try to prepare them best for different opportunities so that they don’t reoffend and our recidivism rate in Suffolk County is reduced."

Elizabeth A. Justesen, chief community outreach officer of the Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County, said jail inmates often come from economically-distressed areas where arts and humanities programs are cut in local schools.

"Studies show these kinds of courses promote positive brain growth and can balance out the core curriculum," Justesen said. "These courses can open people’s imagination to see themselves differently in the world. It opens a new area that maybe was neglected in them and can spark new thought processes and can give them a new world view."

Serena Martin-Liguori, executive director of Brentwood-based nonprofit New Hour for Women & Children-LI, said such programs can also benefit women behind bars who have families and children.

"Behind every incarcerated mother and father is a child, and to know that parents behind bars are being given the opportunity to learn and grow and change is really what restorative justice is focused on," Martin-Liguori said. "And it means their children will benefit when they are back in the community from the education they’ve received."

A TASTE OF COLLEGE

  • The program, designed for inmates in short-term correctional facilities, offers six categories of courses. An introductory course, “Just Think,” helps students develop creative and critical thinking skills. Other courses taught include a financial literacy course called "Dollars and Sense," and literature from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, among others.
  • As they consider expanding the program to other correctional facilities on Long Island, Spooner said her nonprofit is discussing partnering with several universities and colleges to provide teachers, course materials and other resources for the students.

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