Aiming to Change Attitudes on a Tight Budget

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Sonja Okun is the founder and executive director of exalt, an organization that connects court-involved young people to paid internships.

Mary Eileen Croke / JJIE

Sonja Okun is the founder and executive director of exalt, an organization that connects court-involved young people to paid internships.

NEW YORK -- The heat, a relentless swelter that can drive you to the point of madness, is what Ashley Carroll remembers most about her first night in lockup. The 18-year-old reached for a window smudged with filth to find some relief but it wouldn’t budge. It was locked. Or stuck.

“Spofford was like solitary confinement,” she said referring to the juvenile detention center located here where she spent time after she “stole from a store.”

“I felt claustrophobic. I felt like I was going to pass out and hyperventilate,” she said.Compounding her discomfort was a desperate need to go to the bathroom. But a guard stood vigil over her. She hated going to the bathroom, with someone watching her every move. Carroll had an epiphany that miserable night, sweating in the heat, holding in her pee, in that squalid Bronx cell.

“I cannot do this,” Carroll said she thought in her jail cell in Spofford Juvenile Center, which had its name changed to Bridges until it closed in 2011. “I can’t do this. I need my space. I need air. I can’t do this.”

In order to turn her prison cell resolution into a reality she had the help of a transition program that helps children in the city’s juvenile system. She said the transformation came about with the help of an organization named exalt (that’s with a small ‘e’). But successful transitional programs like the one Carroll enrolled in are hard to come by, experts say. Exalt was key to her staying out of trouble because it focused on school and job training.“They go to your court dates whenever you have them, they help you with school work,” Carroll said. “You can come for help whenever you need them. And we don’t have many programs like that so I think it’s really good.”

Organizations like exalt, which arranges paid internship opportunities for young people in trouble with the courts, are working hard to return normalcy to young people’s lives and end the school-to-prison pipeline that advocates say exists in some areas of the city.

Exalt holds classes for young people to prepare them for internships. Students also receive help with school and college preparation.

MaryEileen Croke / JJIE

Exalt holds classes for young people to prepare them for internships. Students also receive help with school and college preparation.

With the help of the program, Carroll said she has gone in a few years from a troublemaker hanging out on the streets and wallowing in jail cells, to becoming a soon-to-be college freshman.

Carroll interns after school and is headed to college in the fall.

She wants to go to medical school eventually to be a pediatrician and she said it was exalt that helped her put her life on the right track. Carroll’s probation officer told Carroll she thought she had potential, so recommended her for enrollment in the internship-based program.

Other programs, like the Lineage Project, have been able to help court-involved young people by using exercise to reduce stress. But these types of programs are constantly threatened by budget cuts.

Beth Navon, the executive director of the Lineage Project, said the program is in demand because of its unconventional approach to helping young people in trouble.

“They find a kind of calm and quiet that they haven’t experienced very much,” she said. “They say they learned something after one day.”

Programs like the Lineage Project are always scrambling to raise money because funding can be cut at any time. The White House reported that the federal sequester cut funding for state juvenile justice programs by $21 million.

“If I had more funding, I would be in a lot more places,” Navon said. Since the recession in 2008, funding has decreased and Navon is unsure whether the organization will be affected by the sequester.

Carroll said exalt helped her focus on school and she felt like the staff really cared about her success.

“They actually do help,” she said. “They’re so proud of me for getting into college and they’re excited for me for my prom. And it’s a good feeling.”

Sonja Okun, the founder and executive director of exalt, said the organization prepares students to get jobs with intensive after-school classes that emphasize workplace etiquette and aims to keep them out of the system. She said exalt hopes to encourage an attitude shift with its young people so they keep themselves out of trouble.

“Behavior change is a process, not an event,” Okun said.

While the number of incarcerated youth has decreased in recent years, according to The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, recidivism rates are still high. Exalt’s rate is lower than most -- around 6 percent are involved with the courts within two years. But the program is small, serving only about 165 teens per year.

David Brotherton, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said more programs should focus on providing real-world training for young people who have been through the system. He doesn’t think programs should focus on just deterring kids from committing crimes, or pushing religion -- he wants them to help train the kids to get them back on the right track and into something concrete like a job.

“We just need a much more comprehensive job and educational opportunity structure. We don’t guarantee them anything,” Brotherton said. “We should be guaranteeing kids some kind of work experience that leads to a job.”

Exalt helped Carroll prioritize what is important to her -- family and school. Carroll spends her time at her after-school internship, where she keeps students on their toes by calling to remind them when they have class, or when they missed one.

Now she is trying to figure out a way to get her younger sister, who has been in and out of trouble with the law, into exalt.

“I think it would be a really good choice because I’ve seen how they help so many other students who were far worse than my sister and it’s really amazing what they actually have done,” Carroll said.

She is no longer in touch with her old friends, and is proud of her new “crew.”

“I made completely new friends,” she said. “They all go to school.”


One thought on “Aiming to Change Attitudes on a Tight Budget

  1. Isn’t it time that they do away with detention for non-violent youhtful offenders? How much of a drain is detention on budgets? It seems that GPS monitoring could add a sufficient level of external control, that apparently is not available, while attending school, internships, or a job. At least until new habits are developed and old ones are broken. GPS is significantly less costly than detention, but still with significant controls.