PROFILES IN EDUCATION
Barbara Grodd Makes a Difference Behind Bars
It’s not every social worker who extends the professional credo of helping the disadvantaged and downtrodden to those who are locked away in prisons. But Barbara Grodd, who spent two decades helping those behind bars, is no ordinary social worker.
“A few committed individuals can make a difference,” reflects the now-retired Grodd as she looks back on a career dedicated to helping the incarcerated return to society as contributing citizens. While statistics overwhelmingly demonstrate the value of educating and supporting prisoners (there are rafts of studies pointing to dramatically reduced recidivism rates following educational and social service intervention), federal, state and local governments have been reluctant to spend adequate resources on services for the incarcerated. Enter Grodd, who spent eight years as the Director of Substance Abuse Services at Riker’s Island and who in 1989 co-founded the nonprofit Friends of Island Academy (FOIA), which to this day provides job training, counseling, education, mentoring, and youth leadership development for the prison’s discharged adolescents. (Island Academy is a Board of Education alternative school within the Riker’s Island complex that is attended by many of the imprisoned youth.)
Among the many innovations Grodd instituted at Riker’s Island was a curriculum-based goal-setting program to help adolescents focus on meaningful short and long term goals. (Grodd and her staff noticed that while adolescents had grandiose short term goals, like “buying a Lamborghini”, their long term goals became more realistic.) Ever the activist, Grodd helped beef up meager staffing resources by recruiting social work graduate students to do their required field work placements in the prison, starting with two students from Columbia and ultimately expanding to 14 students from a wide spectrum of social work schools. Where possible, Grodd hired ex-offenders as her paid staff. One of her most memorable employees, Hal, a former drug abuser who learned he was HIV positive after he began working in her office, ultimately went on to obtain his master’s degree and launch a successful career in social work under Grodd’s mentorship.
But perhaps most importantly, Grodd significantly ratcheted up the life skills training, discharge planning and after-care services for adolescent substance abusers during her tenure at Riker’s Island. Now, “when an adolescent leaves Riker’s Island, he knows where to go, he’s got a mentor, and he knows how to get by in the community,” says Grodd proudly, noting that these basic cornerstones of self-sufficiency weren’t always provided to discharged prisoners. Indeed, demand for Grodd’s services became so significant that she began writing grants to secure outside funding for needs that could not be met in-house. And so Friends of Island Academy was born, a permanent, 501(c)3 enterprise that has proven enormously effective in reducing recidivism (rates dropped 18 percent under her watchful eye) and for getting ex-offenders into productive jobs and affordable housing upon their discharge from prison. The last grant proposal Grodd wrote before retiring from FOIA was, shrewdly enough, to the Robinhood Foundation, which lent its substantial accounting and business acumen to the ambitious nonprofit enterprise and has since helped to insure its continued success.
In a seminal 1991 paper on social work practice within prisons, Grodd wrote that “the community, on the whole, remains uninterested in the welfare of inmates, seeking protection from them, not involvement with them.” Does Grodd believe society has moved ahead in the 15 years since she published these dire words? While Grodd would concede that there’s now more funding for alternatives to institutionalization, including mixed use housing for ex-offenders and their families, she remains concerned about a diminution in vital funding sources like the erstwhile federal Pell grants that helped subsidize education in prisons. “So many prisoners come from abusive families,” reflects Grodd. “The father is in jail; the mother is a prostitute. Where do they get the strength to overcome these problems?” One guesses Grodd knows the answer to that question, and it has to do with people like her, providing both compassion and service to make the world just a little bit better for society’s most vulnerable.#