A large group of Huntington High School students recently toured the Suffolk County correctional facility in Riverhead and experienced the uneasy 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 the stark understanding that this was a real world situation for those who are serving sentences behind bars.
Huntington students participated in the Suffolk Sheriff's YES program at the Riverhead jail
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.
The Huntington teenagers are enrolled in either Criminal Justice or Personal Law I courses with Huntington teachers Erik Bruckbauer and Suzi Biagi. The 39 students and two faculty members toured four of the jail’s tiers, including two designated for women and two designed for men.
“A growing number of Suffolk County’s youth are in danger of falling prey to criminal and gang activity,” Suffolk Sheriff Errol Toulan, Jr. said. “Young teens especially face peer pressures that often make them act in ways that help them become accepted by a group, but they have no idea about the consequences of their behavior. As a result, many young people at an early age begin what may become a painful life of criminal behavior. The goal of the YES program is to educate youth about the potential consequences of poor choices. Our YES program stresses education and reality. By giving kids a realistic view of what lies ahead if they cross that line, we hope that it will leave a strong impact in their minds to stop them from engaging in criminal acts.” The program emphasizes education, communication and accountability.
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.
Mrs. Biagi and Mr. Bruckbauer have been bringing their classes to the Suffolk jail in Riverhead for many years. Students were prepped for their trek to eastern Long Island by a video supplied 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 overview of a correctional officer’s duties included what it means to be responsible for the care, custody and control of inmates and the multitude of security measures followed on any given day.
“The students learned so much today, especially about their preconceived notions that it can’t happen to them,” Mrs. Biagi said. “When an inmate shared how you can’t really trust a friend when you get caught doing something and that you can only count on yourself, it touched them.”
Each of the Huntington students reacted differently to the experience inside the jail, which has a design capacity of 769 cells. “We met with seven current inmates who shared their poignant stories with our students,” Mr. Bruckbauer said.
The experience was a hard-hitting one for the Huntington teenagers. “It was exhilarating yet horrifying,” a junior said. “I would highly recommended it for all students.”
One of the freshman on the trip said that “jail is nothing like you see in movies; it’s totally different on the inside.”
Another junior stated that the visits showed him “what not to do” and added that he’s already thinking about his “future activities.”
One of the sophomores said the trip reminded her to “make wise decisions or it will haunt you for the rest of your life.”
Students repeatedly said the jail tour was “eye opening and shocking.” One teenager found it to be amazing that “little things we do can alter our lives forever and that you never really realize what goes on in jail.”
The students were well-prepared to absorb everything they came across. “It only takes one thing to ruin all the hard work you’ve done,” one Huntington freshman said. Two other ninth graders said the stories the inmates told the group “made us sad. They are real people just like us.”
One of the freshman said that “going to the jail gives me a whole new perspective on life.”
Many students said they will be thinking twice before doing anything that might get them in trouble. One added that “peer pressure gets you nowhere but in trouble.”
Despite the long ride on the Long Island Expressway to and from the facility in Riverhead, students found value in the trip and visit. “It’s not like a regular motivational speaker; it’s literally in living color and it will make me think twice in the future,” one of the freshman said.