Getting Out and Staying Out

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December 15, 2010; Source: NPR | Getting out and staying out is one of the hardest things to do for recently released inmates who may have nowhere to live and few real job prospects. The challenge has become just a little bit easier for inmates at Rikers Island.

The aptly named nonprofit, Getting Out and Staying Out, founded by retired cosmetics executive Mark Goldsmith six years ago, has helped some 1,500 young men incarcerated at Rikers find new lives on the outside. According to NPR, only about 20 percent of those who go through the program return to prison, compared with nearly 60 percent for Rikers as a whole.

How does an exec find his way inside to do good? Six years ago, he was asked to take part in a nonprofit program that nurtures ties between civic leaders and the schools, by getting leaders to serve as principal for a day. He said he wanted a tough school. He thought he might go to East New York or South Bronx.

But instead they asked, “‘Would you go to jail?’ And I said, ‘OK, I’ll go to jail.'”

Since then he’s been showing the men he cares—rather than simply telling them he cares. “It takes time to gain their confidence and get them to believe that you really do care,” Goldsmith adds. “You do it by being there for them in their time of need. ”

“It doesn’t matter to them that he’s Caucasian or older,” Tonya Threadgill, assistant principal at East River Academy, a school set up inside Rikers by the city’s Department of Educationsays. “He’s a man. He’s been successful in life. And I think that’s an important connection for them.”

You can bet part of Goldsmith’s success in life depends on his attention to return on investment. He explains the principle to his students this way: “So you’re a business, an individual—but you’re a business. What do I want back? I want you to get educated. I want you to learn a trade. And I want you to be successful. If you’re successful, I have gotten my return on my investment.”—Aaron Lester