Last night, 24 men marched proudly to the sounds of “Pomp and Circumstance” as their loved ones looked on. This was no ordinary graduation, however. Publisher Steve Forbes was the commencement speaker, but that isn’t what made it so unusual. Peeking out beneath their graduation robes were matching dark green trousers, the only hint of a uniform. When the valedictorian addressed the crowd, he described the violence he experienced throughout his childhood, culminating in the night he shot and killed three men. The other graduates nodded knowingly. As he publicly addressed his teenaged daughter, whom he had not seen in three years, his voice filled with regret and yearning. But when he spoke of the education program that has transformed his life, his voice filled with power and hope. These are the graduates of Hudson Link, a college degree program sponsored by Mercy College within the walls of the notorious Sing Sing Correctional Facility.
Hudson Link is the only college degree program for prison inmates that is completely funded by private donations. Not a single tax dollar is used to educate these men. In 1996 then-Governor George Pataki wisely said, “We are no longer going to use tax dollars to fund college programs in prisons, when middle class New Yorkers are struggling to send their own children to college.” He pulled the plug on financial aid programs, and college ended for New York inmates.
But some of the men wanted to finish their degrees. They banded together, raised money, found volunteers from the outside to help them, and Hudson Link for Higher Education was born. And then a strange thing started to happen: when their own time, money and effort was being used to run the program, they began taking it more seriously. They studied harder and selected their classes more carefully. As graduate Sean Pica admits, “Before Governor Pataki turned off the tax dollars, I had 119 college credits, but I was nowhere close to a degree. I was just taking classes because it was something to do.”
After Hudson Link was formed, however, Pica earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in short order. “I was keenly aware that this money came from people who cared about us and were sacrificing for our education,” he says. In addition, the men must pay a portion of the tuition themselves. It amounts to just $10, but for men who earn 18 cents an hour, that represents a third or more of their income. They are invested. And it makes a difference.
One of the primary differences affects you and me: the startling result as these men are paroled and re-enter the world that you and I inhabit. While two out of three parolees are convicted of another crime within three years, not a single Hudson Link graduate has returned to prison. The national recidivism rate is over 60 percent; the Hudson Link recidivism rate is zero. Nada. Zilch. This is the power of a private education.
Soon Mercy College came on board, and now these men are taking college courses using the same syllabus, the same requirements, and the same professors as students in the civilian campuses of Mercy College. There is one big difference: Better students. I should know — I’m one of the professors. In my day classes on the civilian campus, students trickle in anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes late. They check their phones throughout class, leave to use the bathroom or buy a cup of coffee, and rely heavily on SparkNotes instead of reading their textbooks. As a teacher, it’s frustrating to see how far student behavior has fallen in 20 short years.
By contrast, my Sing Sing students are already in the classroom when I arrive. They respect my time, and they respect me. They’ve read the assignment, sometimes two or three times. Their homework is ready, neatly written in complete sentences. Their classroom demeanor is engaging, and their discussions are remarkable. I leave the classroom energized by their insights.
These students thrive on correction. They thrive on praise. And they thrive on the idea that they are doing something to make their families proud. Many of them are the first in their families to attend college. They are becoming role models for their children, even though they are doing it from within the walls of a maximum security prison. It is a privilege to be part of such a remarkable program.
Last night, after the valedictorian concluded his remarks, Steve Forbes told the graduates, “Wealth is not in material goods. Wealth is in the mind.” He explained, “Oil is just glop. You can’t drink it, eat it, or feed it to a camel. But a human mind figured out how to turn that glop into energy.” He offered another example. “Silicon is just sand. You find tons of it on every beach. But a human mind figured out how to turn that sand into a micro chip, and completely transformed our world.” He regaled the men with numerous stories, and encouraged them to use their minds to see things differently and make a difference in the world.
All too soon, the graduation was over. The robes were stored in their boxes, waiting for the class of 2012 to don them next year. The men would soon exchange their crisply ironed shirts and ties for the knit pullovers they wear every day. The dark green trousers continue to identify them as inmates. Cinderella’s coach again became a pumpkin. But that’s just on the outside. On the inside, these men are forever changed — transformed by the power of education.
Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York and has served as the entertainment editor of Liberty Magazine since 2005. She is the founder and producer of Anthem Film Festival, which will premiere at Freedom Fest in Las Vegas this summer.