Executive Summary

The objective of the audit was to determine whether the Department of Correction (DOC) and the Department of Education (DOE) offered and provided educational services, respectively, to young inmates at the Rikers Island facility (Rikers), particularly to those with special educational needs[1].   The audit scope was Fiscal Year 2015 (July 1, 2014, through June 30, 2015).

DOC provides for the daily custody, control and care of persons accused of crimes and persons convicted and sentenced to one year or less of jail time in New York City (the City).  People incarcerated at Rikers can be as young as 16.

Under New York State regulations, an inmate is eligible to receive educational services if he/she is under 21 years of age, has not received a high school diploma, and has been (or can reasonably be expected to be) incarcerated in a correctional facility for 10 or more calendar days.  The regulations further require that DOC, within 10 days of admission, advise eligible inmates 16-21 years of age of the availability of educational services.  In addition, according to a DOC Directive entitled Inmate Access to Board of Education Services, new admission inmates under 22 years old are required to complete and sign a Rikers Island Schools Request for Educational Services form[2].   Moreover, under New York State regulations, correctional facility staff must submit requests for educational services to the school district by the end of the next school day after the inmates complete the form.

DOE is the largest school district in the United States, serving 1.1 million students in over 1,800 schools.  Pursuant to the abovementioned State regulations and the decision of the Second Circuit Court in Handberry v. Thompson, DOE provides educational services on Rikers to eligible inmates through its East River Academy (ERA)[3].

State regulations further provide that instruction for incarcerated students must begin no later than 11 school days after the school district receives a request for educational services.  Based on the ERA Staff Handbook, a Special Education Plan (SEP) must be developed and implemented within 30 school days of a student with special educational needs commencing participation in a DOE school or program[4].   The SEP outlines the special services to be provided to a student with special educational needs.  It is based on the Individualized Education Program (IEP) previously prepared by the last school attended by the student, modified to the extent necessary so that it can be implemented in a correctional facility.  The SEP is also based on classroom observations at ERA and on student performance.

Audit Findings and Conclusion

The audit identified weaknesses in DOC’s efforts to ensure that all young inmates eligible for educational services are advised of their opportunity to receive them.  The audit also found weaknesses in DOE’s efforts to prepare SEPs for all ERA students with special educational needs within 30 school days of their first day of attendance at ERA.

The evidence reviewed during the audit indicated that all 16-17 year olds admitted to Rikers during Fiscal Year 2015 were provided educational services as mandated by law.  However, DOC provided insufficient evidence to demonstrate that inmates 18-21 years of age admitted to Rikers during Fiscal Year 2015 were consistently informed of the opportunity to request and receive educational services as required by State regulations.  DOC was unable to provide us with signed Request for Educational Services forms for 68 percent of the 92 18-21 year-old inmates in our sample[5].   DOC’s inability to provide that documentation raises serious questions as to whether young inmates are consistently being advised of the opportunity to receive educational services.  DOC also does not maintain a log or any other record showing when it provides signed Request for Educational Services forms to DOE.  As a result, DOC has no assurance that its staff members are informing DOE of inmates’ requests for educational services by the end of the next school day, as required.

DOE, similarly, provided insufficient evidence to demonstrate that inmates 18-21 years of age were consistently provided educational services by the 11th day following its receipt of requests for educational services.  Since DOE neither date-stamps the Request for Educational Services forms it receives from DOC nor maintains a log of their receipt, DOE is unable to demonstrate that it is providing educational services by the 11th day following its receipt of the forms, as required by State regulations.

In addition, DOE provided no evidence that it prepared SEPs for 9 (36 percent)  of our sample of 25 enrolled inmates with special educational needs during Fiscal Year 2015.  Moreover, DOE did not consistently complete those SEPs that were prepared within 30 school days of the students’ enrollment in ERA, as required.  Of the remaining 16 students in our sample, the SEPs for 3 were prepared more than 30 school days after the students began receiving educational services at ERA.

Finally, neither the two responsible agencies (DOC and DOE) nor the auditors could be assured that all of the eligible individuals were advised of the opportunity to receive educational services or that all who accepted such services received the services in a timely manner or at all.

Audit Recommendations

To address these issues, the audit recommends, among other things, that:

  • DOC should ensure that all inmates 18-21 years of age complete the Request for Educational Services form.
  • DOC should maintain completed Request for Educational Services forms for a sufficient length of time to facilitate reviews of detention center compliance in this area.
  • DOC should maintain a log indicating when it provides DOE with completed Request for Educational Services forms.
  • DOE should record the dates it receives Requests for Educational Services forms from DOC and notify DOC when the forms are not provided to DOE by the end of the next school day based on the dates that the request forms were completed.
  • DOE should ensure that it prepares SEPs for all students with special educational needs and that they are prepared on a timely basis.

Agency Response

In their responses, DOC agreed with three of the audit’s four recommendations directed to DOC and partially agreed with one, while DOE agreed with the audit’s five recommendations directed to DOE.  However, DOC specifically disputed “the overall finding that ‘DOC does not ensure that eligible inmates 18-21 years of age are advised of the opportunity to receive educational services’” and DOE generally objected to the focus of the report.

[1] According to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, schools must provide special education and related services to students who, by reason of their disabilities, need such services.  20 U.S. Code §1414.

[2] NYC Department of Education, Chancellor’s Regulation A-210, Minimum Standards for Attendance Programs (2013) provides, among other things, that “each minor from 5 to 17 years of age in New York City is required to attend school on a full time basis” and that “students who turn 17 on or after July 1 must complete the school year in which they turn 17 years of age.”  The regulation creates an exception for minors who have graduated from high school.   DOC officials told us that because it is mandatory for 16 and 17 year-old minors to attend school unless they are high school graduates, DOC does not distribute the Request for Educational Services forms to those inmates but, rather, simply escorts them to the East River Academy, the school that the New York City Department of Education operates for eligible students incarcerated on Rikers Island.

[3] On August 14, 1996, Handberry v. Thompson was filed by inmates who did not have a high school diploma, were between 16 and 21 years of age, and in the custody of DOC.  The plaintiffs claimed DOC and DOE failed to offer and provide, respectively, adequate general and special education services to young inmates in violation of federal and New York State law.  A decision was issued in the case in 2002 by the District Court for the Southern District of New York.  In 2006, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed some portions of the District Court ruling and vacated others.  Handberry v. Thompson, 446 F.3d 335 (2d Cir. 2006).

[4] Insofar as this report cites Handberry v. Thompson as authority, the relevant portion of the ruling by the District Court, which ordered DOE to develop and implement a special education plan for each special education student within 30 school days of the student’s commencing participation in school at Rikers, was affirmed by the Second Circuit. Handberry v. Thompson, 446 F.3d 335, 356 (2d Cir. 2006).

[5] We randomly selected 100 inmates from DOC’s Inmate Information System dataset of inmates 16-21 years of age who were admitted to Rikers during Fiscal Year 2015.  Of the 100 inmates in our sample, 8 were 16-17 years of age when they were admitted to Rikers.  Since educational services are mandated for this age group and DOC escorts such inmates to the East River Academy rather than requiring them to complete Request for Educational Services forms, we therefore exclude these 8 inmates from our sample for purposes of testing whether inmates eligible for educational services had received the abovementioned request forms.