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Behind the Walls

Malkie Schulman

Chani Schwarcz, a social worker at New York’s infamous Rikers Island, can see beyond the prison walls, beyond the walls erected internally, to the spark of goodness within

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

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nside, the walls are painted white and gray, institutional colors. But it’s well kept, and the grounds are pretty, the lawn is mowed, and flowers are planted. That’s because work crews — a.k.a. prisoners, a.k.a. Chani Schwarcz’s clients — maintain the gardens and the building. Chani Schwarcz, LMSW, works as a social worker/discharger planner in Rikers Island.

Rikers Island is New York City’s main jail complex, as well as the name of the 413-acre island upon which it sits, on the East River. One of the world’s largest correctional institutions and mental institutions, it’s been described as New York’s most infamous jail.

None of this description tallies with Chani’s positive daily working experience, one that she asserts is a lesson in light and hope. When she tells people where she works, Chani often gets a freak-out reaction: “You work where?!”

“They only know about Rikers Island from the media. It doesn’t match up with what I’m talking about. So they don’t know how to respond. But I don’t work for the corrections department, which is an entirely different experience; I work in the mental health department.”

Chani never dreamed she’d end up working in a place like Rikers Island. “I was in-between jobs, and my résumé was on a job-searching website. A placement agency got ahold of my résumé and helped me be placed at Rikers.”

Every morning, Chani passes through security, and then walks down a long hall to her office in the Anna M. Kross Center at Rikers Island. “The units I work on are dorm-like settings with beds set up in rows, a day room with TV, tables, and chairs for group therapy sessions and meals. Day rooms are decorated with art from art therapy. 



There’s a clinic office for mental health clinicians and social workers, which has positive quotes on the walls.” These units house individuals with mental health disorders awaiting court trial. They are Chani’s clients.

Still, despite its aesthetic trappings, a jail is a jail. “If I was scared, I wouldn’t have taken the job,” Chani says. But she admits that there are challenges. All workers in correctional health services are in a vulnerable situation. “We never know if a client had a bad visit, a difficult day at court, or is feeling symptomatic, so I’m constantly aware of my surroundings and keep appropriate boundaries in place. Honestly, there are times I’m more scared of walking in Manhattan because I don’t know if someone will steal my phone. I can be more scared of driving because I don’t know if the person driving in the car next to me is drunk or high.

“I have thick skin, I set my boundaries, and thank G-d nothing has happened to me.”

As a discharge planner, Chani works with a team to set up a functional exit plan for clients when they’re ready to be released from jail. “Adjustment into everyday life differs for each individual,” Chani explains. 

There are the big issues that need to be put into place first. “Some clients struggle to find a stable housing situation. Some need to get a new job. Others need to learn how to relate to family members again, including spouses and children.”

After time in jail, in which every activity in the day is dictated by an authority figure, just getting into a regular schedule can be a challenge. “Suddenly, no one’s telling them: Get up! Breakfast time. Time for medication.”

 Then there are other stress factors. What if family members move away or don’t want to have anything to do with a client? What if friends aren’t friends anymore? Clients have to learn how to deal with outside stressors without resorting to patterns of behavior that haven’t served them well.

To facilitate this, Chani and her team use the systems approach to enable clients to develop coping skills and take advantage of available support systems. “We look at different areas of the client’s life and observe how and if those areas can be of assistance to them. For example, is there family support? Does the client have a job waiting for him on the outside? How can he get one? What are his hobbies? Is he willing to go to 12-step meetings? Does he know where he can hook up with one?” Chani will utilize every resource she can to help her clients successfully acclimate to life on the outside.

Chani also works with case managers on the outside who essentially carry on what she does inside the jail. “Each program we develop is individual, and takes the client’s diagnosis and circumstances into account. The less intense cases can manage on medication and therapy once a week, and a case worker is put in place to make sure there’s medication compliance. The more intense cases benefit from court-monitored treatment, which includes housing, mental health counseling, and intensive case management.”

What about the success rate? “A lot of my clients do well under these types of programs. They have a lot of support. Simply the knowledge that people care for them and want to make sure they’re doing well is a big motivator.” If someone initially refuses to go on medication, Chani will continue monitoring and discussing the issues with them. Ultimately, however, it’s the individual’s decision.

 Finding Faith

For Chani to do her job, she has to secure the cooperation and trust of her clientele. “Often when clients first come in, they’re angry and recalcitrant. They can be unwilling to cooperate. At times, they’ll start venting their frustration.”

Chani then swiftly terminates the session. “I understand their frustration, but I’ll wait until a client is more stable.” There can be many reasons why clients don’t engage in the first session, Chani explains. This can include being off their regular medication prior to their arrest, or needing to detox from drugs or alcohol. A client with a history of incarcerations can feel ashamed and humiliated at being back behind bars. “I maintain a steady comforting presence on the unit until the client feels ready to talk.”

A key to Chani’s effectiveness is her belief in her client’s ability to change. But at times, this may be challenging. How does Chani look past the crime and see the person?

“No one starts their life saying, ‘I want a life of crime,’ ” Chani maintains. “These people are often from severely deprived backgrounds, and I try to help them shift the way they see themselves.” Chani’s words are uttered with deep conviction. “I care about the people I work with. This is an underserved population. I want the best for them. I firmly believe that every human being is intrinsically valuable and deserves all the help we can get. I don’t see them as criminals.”

Chani is keen in her belief that everybody deserves a second chance. Perhaps this has its roots in her own life difficulties. “I went through stuff as a child that nobody should have to go through, and my husband and other support figures have always stuck with me. I know I want to be seen as someone who picked herself up and went on,” Chani shares.

“I’ve been on the receiving end of therapy. I can attest firsthand to how powerful getting support and gaining tools I need to succeed in life can push me in ways I never imagined. I firmly believe the mark of a strong person lies in her ability to get extra support and skills from others who can help.”

When faced with the most uncooperative of clients, Chani can draw encouragement from the positive changes she’s seen in her other clients. Jail doesn’t sound like the kind of place where people become healthier and decide to make something of themselves, but that’s what Chani’s seen time and again. “It’s inspiring,” she says. “They draw support from each other’s stories, knowing they’re not alone in their challenges. It’s like: This happened to you, this happened to me, too.”

 A conventional job it’s not, but for Chani, the pros outweigh the cons. “I am gaining so much by working here. There are clients who struggle with deep issues but utilize every emotional skill in their toolbox to help themselves think positively and grow. When clients want something enough, they’ll go after it. When they’re taking their meds, doing what helps them, going to therapy groups, and just plain persevering — I see them succeed.”

“Recently,” she continues, “there was a talent show and the men shared songs and poems that they had composed. You could see the bonds they have formed with each other and the respect they have for each other. I feel hopeful when I’m on the unit day after day and I see them growing. A while ago, I was walking on the unit and saw one inmate provoking another. The other inmate was about to respond in kind, but then he stopped himself and walked away. That was gratifying.”

Home Life

Chani maintains that her parenting has been enhanced since beginning this job. “I have a lot more patience with my children. I listen without jumping in all the time like I used to. I used to try to fix all my kids’ problems. Now I work on coaxing them to figure things out for themselves.”

Chani also admits that she’s more respectful in general. “I’ve learned in a very hands-on way never to judge people. You never know a person until you see the whole person.”

Notwithstanding the insights Chani has picked up in her job, she’s clear about the boundaries separating workplace and life on the outside. “Sometimes I’ll listen to music on the way home to help me separate. I try to be very careful never to bring work experiences home with me.”

For Chani, working in a high-security jail enhances her appreciation for the things that most of us take for granted: a comfortable bed, sanitary living conditions, the ability to walk into the kitchen and prepare whatever meal she feels like. Freedom.

Internal Walls

Prisoners are defined by the walls that separate them from the world. But whether physical bricks or emotional blocks, many of us erect walls of sorts. “There are people on the outside who have put up their own invisible walls, as a defense mechanism or to protect themselves from their stresses. Whether emotional, familial, financial, or health related, there are so many stressors that people deal with, and it’s important to understand that other people also struggle.”

In fact, that’s one of the struggles of Chani’s clients as they return to life on the outside. “My clients can leave these physical walls and rejoin the community. What’s harder is lowering the invisible walls that they’ve also erected for the same reasons of protection and defense.”

That doesn’t sound like an easy task. Chani agrees. “It is a challenge. Getting through the tough layers of my clients to the vulnerable, valuable person underneath isn’t simple. But I feel that if I can help someone access services they may not have ever utilized before and this helps them, then I did my job.”

It may sound strange to find job satisfaction on Rikers Island, but as Chani dismantles walls, brick by brick, she’s exhilarated by her clients’ newfound freedom.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 603)


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