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Inspiring Rikers Teacher Runs Afoul of Jail's Rules


By Michael Winerip

JEFF KAUFMAN, a teacher at the Rikers Island jail, has a reputation as a good educator who cares about his student inmates. In 2004, without the aid of computers, his students finished first in a citywide stock market game competition against more than 50 high schools.

Elizabeth Lesher, who oversees the competition, said that at most schools, "students gather around computers, research stocks via Web sites such as Yahoo Finance, Market Watch or Nasdaq and enter their transactions online."

"The classroom environment at Rikers was very sparse," said Ms. Lesher, a director for the Foundation for Investor Education. "No attractive bulletin boards, no computers with Internet access and no industry specialists visited the classroom to provide investment ideas." Mr. Kaufman's students relied on the newspaper and his class lessons. That, she said, "speaks volumes about the teacher. Obviously I was very impressed."

In 2003, Mr. Kaufman's students won a citywide playwriting competition. In 2000 and 2001, he arranged for the student chorus at Louis Armstrong Middle School in Queens to visit Rikers at Christmas and perform for his students.

Don Murphy, a fellow teacher, said Mr. Kaufman became so popular during his eight years at the jail that in 2004 he was unopposed in the election for union representative at Island Academy, the Rikers school, which serves about 1,000 teenage inmates.

David Lee, an inmate serving time for assault, who earned a General Educational Development diploma with one of the highest scores ever at Rikers, said no teacher worked harder. Mr. Kaufman made special arrangements for Mr. Lee to take college correspondence courses, spent his lunch hours tutoring him and then proctored each of the three-hour exams from Excelsior College.

In July 2003, Mr. Kaufman was off for the summer, but made special trips to Rikers so Mr. Lee could take his next college exam. "All the teachers were on vacation and school didn't begin until September," Mr. Lee wrote in a letter sent to this reporter from Rikers. "But Kaufman comes here to Rikers not once, but twice just so that he could give me the test on a hot summer day. He didn't have to come; he could have stayed home with his wife and kids."

"Mr. Kaufman wasn't only a teacher or test proctor," said Mr. Lee. "He inspired me to aim higher in life."

But on Friday, Mr. Kaufman received notice from his principal that he was no longer permitted to teach at Rikers.

His crime? "Undue familiarity."

Mr. Kaufman had given Mr. Lee his home address so the two could correspond by mail and try to arrange for Mr. Lee to take another of those Excelsior College exams while the inmate was in solitary confinement in the summer of 2004.

There is no allegation of anything improper about the content of those letters. Copies of 20 letters provided to a reporter by Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Lee mainly talked about learning. In one, the inmate thanked the teacher for sending books to him in solitary ("the Bing") and wrote that he was spending so much time reading, up to 12 hours a day, that he was getting headaches. "I don't mind being here at the Bing but I want to be able to take the test," wrote Mr. Lee.

Mr. Kaufman wrote back urging patience, saying that he was trying to work out arrangements with correction officials. "If your head begins to hurt from reading, stop. Your body is telling you it's enough."

How did school and correction officials know that Mr. Kaufman had given out his home address? Mr. Kaufman told them.

On Sept. 12, 2005, the Rikers principal, Frank Dody, sent out a security memo, in which he spelled out in writing, for the first time, what was meant by the prohibition against undue familiarity: "All contact with current/former students outside of the school area (home, upstate facilities) in the form of letters or phone calls must be authorized by the principal."

Mr. Kaufman read the memo, requested authorization and showed the principal a recent letter from Mr. Lee. Within days Mr. Kaufman was yanked from Rikers and placed in a holding room in Brooklyn for teachers under investigation.

Mr. Kaufman says he thinks the real reason he was investigated was that he had testified at a City Council hearing in December 2004 about how bad the Rikers school's services were for inmates being released. "That really upset Frank Dody," Mr. Kaufman says. "He wouldn't talk to me for months. He's using this incident to get me."

Mr. Dody said he was upset, but that's not why there was an investigation. He said that even though he had been principal six years and had only recently spelled out the rules in writing, anyone who had been at Rikers as long as Mr. Kaufman knew you weren't supposed to give out your address. "Teachers here have to live by the corrections rules," Mr. Dody said. "While the rules don't always make sense, even to me, they're in place for a reason, to keep everyone safe."

Mr. Dody acknowledged that the letter Mr. Kaufman showed him had nothing compromising in it. "From my reading of it, I didn't really see anything of any nature that would raise my eyebrows," Mr. Dody said.

Thomas Antenten, a corrections spokesman, said that once the principal made the decision to refer the case, officials had to investigate. "We take undue familiarity very seriously," he said. "Giving an inmate a personal address could lead to deadly consequences."

Inmates like Mr. Lee say Rikers has lost a rare, good teacher. "It was a wrong decision to demote Kaufman," Mr. Lee said. "I'm the one who initiated contact in order to see what options I had in seeking a better education."

David Lee was a 16-year-old junior with a B+ average at Francis Lewis High in Queens in January 2002. He says he got mixed up with the wrong people, and was at a Flushing apartment when a fight broke out and a man was stabbed to death. Mr. Lee pleaded guilty to first-degree assault in return for an eight-year sentence and is being held at Rikers pending the trial of a co-defendant charged with murder.

Within four months at Rikers, Mr. Lee took the G.E.D. In the middle of the test, he says, a brawl broke out and someone threw a chair at him, bruising a rib. Still, he comes from a family of good students, and even bruised, he finished with a top score. His younger sister, Sonia, is an A student in her sophomore year at George Washington University, and travels from Washington every other week to visit her brother in jail, bringing books he requests.

At the Rikers school, Mr. Lee became a favorite. He showed Mr. Murphy, the computer teacher, how to use several desktop publishing programs. He was given a job doing janitorial work. With Mr. Kaufman's help, he took three college business courses and got A's. Neither he nor Mr. Kaufman knew what material was going to be on the tests and which chapters to focus on, so Mr. Lee read everything. "I would read 450, 500 pages of a textbook from cover to cover three to four times so I would truly understand," he said.

AS Mr. Lee was about to take his fourth college exam, in May 2004, he was caught with 17 packs of Newports. Smoking was banned at Rikers in 2003; cigarettes are considered contraband. Mr. Lee said he was offered a "slap on the wrist" if he'd give up his supplier but did not. For each pack of Newports, he was given 15 days in solitary, 9 months altogether in a 6-by-9-foot cell.

Mr. Antenten, the corrections spokesman, said he did not know the details of the case but added that Rikers makes no distinction between cigarettes and heroin when it comes to contraband. "It can lead to disputes between inmates that have bloody consequences," he said.

Mr. Lee said the teacher's letters helped keep him sane those nine months. "Not only did Kaufman help me pursue educational studies, but he offered moral support through the letters," he said.

The illegal letters sent to Mr. Kaufman's home are often quite moving. A July 28, 2004, letter begins with Mr. Lee thanking the teacher for the latest package of books. "You want to know what's funny," wrote Mr. Lee. "Before I was incarcerated, I never used to really read. I could honestly tell you that I read less than 10 books during my life outside and it was during my elementary school years. I wouldn't even bother to look at the cover of a book if I came across one.

"Now that I'm incarcerated, I treasure them. I'm not just talking about novels which enhance your vocabulary and reading comprehension but also self-help books. What I like about self-help books is that from reading just one significant quote which catches your eye, it could change your whole perception of life itself. From reading books you tap into the most brilliant minds of the present and past. In here they're like my most trusted friends."

At times, in the letters, Mr. Kaufman sounds like a stern father. Referring to the cigarette infraction that got Mr. Lee removed from the school and landed him in the Bing, Mr. Kaufman wrote, "We were all upset at your sudden leaving, but we have talked about consequences."

Mr. Kaufman, 50, said his background - he is a Cornell grad, a former police officer and lawyer for the indigent - makes him well-suited for teaching inmates. He will appeal the decision. "It's a place I feel I can be of most use to my students," he said.

In December, after spending more than two months in the Brooklyn holding room, Mr. Kaufman was sent to Queens Academy, where he is mentoring three new teachers. An Education Department spokesman, David Cantor, said Mr. Kaufman would soon be given a job teaching at an alternative high school.

Mr. Dody, the principal, said Mr. Kaufman's removal was solely a Correction Department decision.

But a November 2005 memo by the department's investigator, Capt. Matthew Boyd, indicates that the principal had a significant role. "Dr. Dody reports that he has determined that Mr. Kaufman's actions violate undue familiarity and I concur," the memo says.

Mr. Dody says he's not a doctor and the corrections memo is wrong.

Mr. Lee's younger sister, Sonia, wrote about his jail experiences in a term paper at George Washington that won a top a prize and was featured at a student lecture series. The paper includes the hardships her brother knew growing up, including the suicide of their mother, who suffered from manic depression. Sonia Lee plans to get a master's degree in public policy specializing in the prison system. Her prize paper calls for prisons that devote more resources to rehabilitation and education.

edmike@nytimes.com



— Michael Winerip
New York Times

2006-01-25


NY


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