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Cello Without Walls

In his project, Cello Without Walls, Jacob Cohen conducts music workshops and live concerts for teens and young adults in jail on Rikers Island. Jacob has been volunteering on Rikers for the past year, inviting young people to recite poetry, freestyle rap, dance, sing and make art together. Besides reducing stress in a notoriously violent jail, Jacob’s program has helped young people leaving the justice system find programs in education and mentoring after their release.

Young people in jail on Rikers Island (held automatically in the adult system at age 16) are some of New York’s poorest and most under-served residents. They often spend months in jail, often without any actual criminal conviction, enduring trauma both inside and after their release. Cello Without Walls brings Jacob into two of the most stressful and difficult areas of the R.N.D.C. complex, which houses inmates ages 16 and 17: Mental Observation housing, where youth are held after suicide attempts or if they have mental health issues/diagnoses; and T.R.U. Housing, where youth stay after disciplinary problems (formerly solitary confinement). Jacob has unescorted access in R.N.D.C., meaning he can move around the jail on his own, with his cello, and can play in numerous areas of the facility.

Jacob has touched the lives of hundreds of inmates. He has been, and increasingly pushes to be, deployed in housing that houses the most troubled of inmates. He truly believes his music and philosophy have had a transformative power – inmates are making music and rapping with guards, and vice versa. It has literally helped build friendships and break down proverbial walls.

Our Awesome Foundation grant will allow Jacob to continue his work within Rikers while he prepares for the next phase of his project. He is hoping to extend the program to, if permitted, consistently capture video and audio, distributing content and stories of the experience within the jail, and ideally expanding the program to other facilities.

Funded by New York City, NY (April 2016)