Three dozen Huntington High School students recently toured the Suffolk County correctional facility in Riverhead and experienced the queasy feeling anyone gets when they step inside a high security jail complex.
The high fences topped with barbed wire and razor-ribbon along with fortified checkpoints and uniformed armed guards provided the teenagers with a quick understanding that this was a real world situation for those who are serving sentences behind bars.
The students participated in the Youth Enlightenment Seminar (YES) initiative at the complex. The program allows teachers to accompany their students into the Riverhead jail in order to experience first-hand what life is like for those who are incarcerated.
Huntington students participated in the Suffolk Sheriff's YES program at the Riverhead jail.
The Huntington teenagers are enrolled in either Criminal Justice or Personal Law I courses with Huntington teachers Erik Bruckbauer and Suzie Biagi. They were prepped for their trek to eastern Long Island by Suffolk correctional officer Christopher Delaney, who stressed that inmates surrender both their freedom and their privacy once they are sentenced to a prison term.
Officer Delaney’s classroom presentations included an overview of a correctional officer’s duties, including what it means in stark terms to be responsible for the care, custody and control of inmates and the multitude of security measures followed on any given day.
The Huntington contingent toured the male and female tiers and several floors of the facility and spent time with six inmates in the prison chapel, hearing their personal stories and what life behind bars is really like.
“Going to jail made me realize that if you think life is a joke perhaps you should take it more seriously,” senior Stephanie Prinston said.
Students learned about everything from contraband to “sally ports,” the secure prison pathways used to keep correctional officers and others safe. They were provided with a first-hand view of how a person lives after losing their freedom as a result of poor decisions.
“Life’s lessons come from the smallest mistakes,” junior Ashley Coleman said. “We saw what can happen if you make just one; especially if you trust the wrong friend.”
Mrs. Biagi and Mr. Bruckbauer have been bringing their classes to the Suffolk jail in Riverhead for many years. “One of the units of study in Criminal Justice is learning about the nation’s prison system and debating how our society should deal with lawbreakers,” Mr. Bruckbauer said. “Touring the Riverhead correctional facility gave students a first-hand experience of what happens to defendants when they are convicted of crimes.”
The jail has a design capacity of 769 cells. “I’m glad I had the opportunity to visit a jail, even though I was scared going in,” freshman Mackenzie Madison said. “After listening and seeing what happens, I am leaving with many valuable lessons that will stick with me, that’s for sure.”
The Huntington students each reacted in a different way to what they experienced inside the jail. “Our YES program stresses education and reality,” outgoing Suffolk Sheriff Vincent DeMarco said. “By giving kids a realistic view of what lies ahead if they cross that line, we hope that it will leave a strong enough imprint in their minds to stop them from engaging in criminal acts.”
Sophomore Craig Haas listened intently during the visit. “The stories of the inmates really inspired me to be a leader and not follow others,” he said. “It’s time for us kids to take action and create positive stories so we won’t have to live a life without our freedoms.”
The trip fit nicely into Mrs. Biagi’s curriculum since her classes study juvenile justice and civil rights and liberties. “This is a great way for our students to get a glimpse of what can happen, when things go terribly wrong and they get caught up in our criminal justice system,” she said following the visit to Riverhead
Mrs. Biagi and Mr. Bruckbauer plan to bring a new group of students to Riverhead in March.