Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

Remarks by Commissioner Brian Fischer
The Children’s Storefront
New York City
April 29, 2009

If you’re wondering why someone who manages a prison system is the speaker at a fund raising event for a non-profit school program, you’re not alone. When I was asked to speak, I asked the same question. But in reality, a prison education system has much in common with a community-based education program like The Children’s Storefront when you consider the purpose of an education: helping people become aware of their potential and how to realize that potential. Prisoners often say that getting an education frees their minds; it fosters self-pride and self-awareness. Here at The Children’s Storefront, the same process takes place, only more effectively and at a time that is critical in each child’s early development.

I think you would agree that much of our personality and our attitude toward ourselves and others is often established in our early years. Imagine, for a moment, what some of the students here might experience if it were not for The Children’s Storefront. I don’t have to imagine; too often I see the results of an early childhood that is devoid of love, self-respect and an education.

I had an opportunity to visit The Children’s Storefront last week and found myself wishing I could transport your school and its way of engaging and energizing each student into the prison system. The concepts of conflict resolution and critical thinking, the understanding that there are alternative ways to solve a problem, and the emphasis on taking pride in one’s own self worth are exactly the ideas we encourage inside prison. One of the most significant and unfortunately one of the most critical missing pieces in the thinking of those I deal with is the notion that there are alternatives and possibilities in life.

For a long time I was very pleased to talk about the number of offenders in my system who earned their High School Equivalency diplomas. While that is an important benchmark, I’ve come to better understand the real value of an education. It’s more than book learning. It’s more than the accumulation of skills. Education is the foundation upon which everything else is built. It defines us as human beings.

In prison, seeing an individual progress from being illiterate to being able to read, on any level, is an accomplishment worth noting. So is the fact that the reading level of both men and women jump years in a short time. Even more important, however, is the pride they take as they become aware of their new abilities and the impact on their own feelings of accomplishment. In short, education allows them to redefine themselves. And many of the men and women involved in the prison education system reach out to their own school-age children not only to encourage the children’s efforts, but to share in their children’s feelings of accomplishment.

Too many children in our communities never get the opportunities that many of us have had over the years. Too often I see the result of those lost opportunities, and the struggle of some to overcome those disadvantages.

From my vantage point, the role teachers and family members play in a child ‘s education and development cannot be overstated. The interpersonal relationships that come about when students and teachers share the experience of learning, and of discovering new ideas, help shape a child’s view of the world and the people in it. When these relationships are combined and supported by a child’s connection with his or her family, the child learns to trust others and to understand that he or she is not alone in the world.

These two elements then play a major role in the child’s ability and willingness to try new ideas, to test their own intellectual abilities, to dream. If you don’t trust people, you often don’t trust yourself. You then limit yourself, see things within narrow borders and fail to consider possibilities.

All this brings me to something you probably already know – that the nature of the program here at The Children’s Storefront provides far more than an early education. It establishes a base of trust, of acceptance. It establishes ambitious expectations and appropriate behavioral codes. These are the elements far too often missing in the early lives of the many men and women I have encountered in the prison system. And these are the elements we try to establish for these same men and women long after their childhood has passed.

I applaud you for your support of The Children’s Storefront. You are helping provide the right message and the right tools at the right time to ensure that these children make the most of their lives and in the process contribute to making our community a better place.