Coney Island

In Public Service: Harris faced danger at Rikers Island

May 2, 2016 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Assemblymember Pamela Harris formed Coney Island Generation Gap to give kids an alternative to life on the streets. Eagle photo by Paula Katinas
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Pamela Harris is probably the one of the only members of the New York State Assembly who can say she survived a riot at Rikers Island.

Harris, a retired correction officer, worked at Rikers Island for 10 years until a serious injury forced her into an early retirement.

An inmate attacked her during a riot in the infamous jail. The riot was terrifying, she recalled. “I literally had to fight my way out,” she told the Brooklyn Eagle.

Harris suffered a broken nose, among other injuries, and was out of work for 10 months. “I was determined to go back,” she said.

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Harris recovered and returned to work in the jail’s adolescent facility.

But in 2006, she discovered that she lost hearing in one of her ears, a consequence of the injury she sustained in the riot. “I decided it was time for me to retire,” she recalled.

Her time at Rikers Island wasn’t all bad. She had a commercial driver’s license and told everyone she came across that she could drive a truck in case her services were ever needed.

One day, her bosses called upon her to get behind the wheel. “They needed a truck driver to deliver food to 250 inmates,” she said.

Harris got a job delivering meals to jails in Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx.

While she enjoyed the experience, Harris said that seeing young people behind bars made her determined to try to help kids avoid that sad fate.

Harris, a Democrat who represents the 46th Assembly District, sat down for an interview with the Brooklyn Eagle over lunch at Tom’s Diner, a popular place on the Coney Island Boardwalk. Her district covers Coney Island and Seagate and includes parts of Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights. She lives in Coney Island.

In Albany, Harris is a member of the following assembly committees: Aging, Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, Children and Family Services, and Higher Education.

She won the assembly seat in a special election in November of 2015 to fill out the remainder of the term of Alec Brook-Krasny, a Democrat who resigned to take a job in the private sector.

“I did not know my life was going to take this turn!” she said.

Years earlier, her life took a turn when she looked out the window of her Neptune Avenue house and saw something that troubled her.

“I was looking out the window one day and I saw these two young kids outside Kaiser Park throwing trash cans in the middle of the street. They were getting a rise out of seeing the cars swerve to avoid the cans. It was a dangerous situation,” she said.

One of the boys was 8 years old.

The next time Harris saw the boy, he was with his father and she approached the man to talk to him. The man admitted that he had trouble controlling his son’s wild tendencies.

Harris recalled thinking that she wanted to “find something better for these kids to do.”

An idea popped into her head. Her husband Leon is a photographer. She ran into her house and came back out again with one of his cameras. “I told the boy to go out and take pictures with the camera and come back later,” she said.

Harris admitted that she wasn’t sure the boy would come back. Not only did he return with the camera, he came back with excellent pictures, Harris said.

And he kept coming back.

At that point, Harris went out and purchased DJ equipment and had her nephews come over and invite all of their friends. “The next thing I knew, I had a houseful of kids,” she said.

Before Harris even realized it, “it started turning into a program.”

Her next step was to host a college career fair to show the kids that they had a future if they were willing to stay in school, work hard, and dream.  “I hosted an after-party with a twist. You only got into the after-party if you went to the college fair,” she said.

Officials from Morehouse College came to the event, as did all of the neighborhood’s elected officials. One of them told Harris, “You’ve really got something here.”

With a group of like-minded friends, Harris decided to form a nonprofit organization. They named it Coney Island Generation Gap. “We bridge the gap between young people and adults,” she explained.

“We started with a photography program,” she said. Harris would come up with different themes and have the kids take pictures relating to those themes. Harris also got the kids T-shirts.

In 2007, Coney Island Generation Gap was granted non-profit, 501-C3 status by the Internal Revenue Service.

Harris used the first floor of her house as a work station for Coney Island Generation Gap.

“Now, there are 70 kids in the program,” she boasted.

As for the boy Harris found tossing trash cans into the street outside Kaiser Park, “he will graduate from high school in June,” she said.

Coney Island Generation Gap has taken the kids on cruises, but the trips always had an educational component. “We didn’t want them sitting on the deck eating Bon-Bons,” Harris said.

Harris had gone to John Jay College of Criminal Justice while working as a correction officer.

She used her life to inspire the kids. “I used to say to them, ‘I bet you that I can finish this book faster than you can.’ The kids took me up on the bet. I also used to bet them that I would get higher grades than them,” she said.

The kids competed with her and improved their grades at school. “It drove them forward,” she said.

Now that Harris is an elected official, she is no longer directly involved in the organization.

While she was working at Rikers Island, Harris attended John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she obtained an Associate’s Degree. She earned a Bachelor’s Degree from Saint Joseph’s College and holds a Master’s from Capella University.

She did not intend to run for public office. But when Brook-Krasny announced in July of 2015 that he was resigning, she felt that the Democratic County committee was trying to come up with a candidate to run for his seat without consulting the community.

“We called a community meeting and I decided to speak up. I said the community was being left out,” she said.

Other Coney Island civic leaders were impressed by her moxie. They told her that she should run.

“But I said, ‘What will happen to my kids?’” she recalled.

She traveled to Trinidad for a speaking engagement and to mull things over. She went jogging one morning and spotted a sign that read, “Protect and serve your community.” She took it as a sign.

“God was sending me a message,” Harris said.

She got someone to take over for her at Coney Island Generation Gap and she ran in the special election, beating Republican Lucretia Regina-Potter.

Once she was elected, Harris hit the ground running, sponsoring and co-sponsoring bills on several different issues, including illegal home conversions, ending employment discrimination and recording police interrogations of young people.

Another bill would allow PTSD treatments to be covered by Medicaid.

The bill hits close to home, according to Harris. “A lot of kids want to get out of gangs. They want to talk to therapists,” she said.

Harris intends to run for her first full term in November.

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