Featured image from 2014 commencement ceremony, provided courtesy of Hudson Link.
by Peter Keller, Episcopal Charities Board Vice President and Advisory Committee Member
Last week, on Wednesday, June 7th, I joined two Episcopal Charities staff members at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison operated by the state of New York, to support the latest graduates of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison as they received their college diplomas. Episcopal Charities is a proud supporter of Hudson Link through partner congregation Christ’s Church, Rye. The program offers higher education and other support to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women across the state of New York.
Wednesday was a very inspiring day as the largest Hudson Link graduating class ever – 36 – received their diplomas in a full room of proud families and friends, faculty, staff and supporters. Including this recent class, Hudson Link has now graduated over 500 students.
While in line for security screening, Sean Pica, executive director of Hudson Link, told me we were in for a real treat. I told him that I was looking forward to hearing Dr. Kim Hunter Reed, under-secretary of education in the Obama administration and current head of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, speak. Sean said “I mean another treat – Harry Belafonte will be here and he is bringing Usher!”
Students of Hudson Link in class in 2014. Photo courtesy of Hudson Link.
The service started off with performer Simeon Duggins, backed by Bryonn Bain, singing his original composition, “Life is Beautiful.” The lyrics were very appropriate for the day and this class of graduates. Then Sean delivered very emotional personal remarks. Sean was incarcerated at the age of sixteen and spent sixteen years in prison. He was in the initial Hudson Link graduating class, and followed the Bachelor of Science degree he received while incarcerated in Sing Sing with two Masters degrees.
Sean spoke of the time when he was a teenager, just after becoming incarcerated, when a guard came to his cell and told him to come help at the library. He ended up going to the library to read to other inmates, and said it was the first time in his life he had done something for someone else, even though his initial motivation had been to just get out of his cell. Those who are newly incarcerated at Sing Sing are confined to their cells 23 hours a day. That initial experience sparked a desire to learn that has led him to a national leadership role in prison education and to the White House, where he attended a reception with the Obamas after Pell Grants were expanded to incarcerated students.
The strong working relationship between Hudson Link and Sing Sing was apparent throughout the ceremony. Before turning the mic over to Michael Capra, Sing Sing Superintendent, Sean asked for a moment of silence for a prison employee who recently died. Then Capra expressed his real pride in all that today’s graduating class has accomplished – in the face of very real obstacles.
Valedictorian Sequan Prude gave the Student Address. He spoke movingly of needing to take responsibility for actions, not worrying about what others think, and becoming the person the “you want to be.” Transformation and redemption are possible, he told the assembly. Sequan said he started following the “wrong crowd” at age eleven and felt hopeless when he entered prison at the age of seventeen. He spoke of calling his seven-year-old brother on the brother’s birthday and having to tell him that he could not come to his party. His brother asked if he was in a different state or “out of this world”; Sequan laughed but realized that he really had exiled himself to a different world. Sequan will be released in a few months with a college degree and new possibilities.
Dr. Reed provided the keynote address. She began by recognizing all that Sean and Hudson Link have done to promote prison education programs. She then went on to comment on the power of education to transform lives and expand opportunity and possibilities. Her inspiration was her grandmother who was a teacher in Louisiana in the early days of integration. Dr. Reed went on to recognize all that today’s graduates have accomplished and commented that she looks forward to following all that they will do in the future.
As he did last year, Timothy Hall, the President of Mercy College, which conferred the degrees to Wednesday’s Hudson Link graduates, stressed that the diplomas being conferred were identical to those earned by Mercy College graduates on the outside. President Hall also made it clear that the 36 graduates had earned these degrees through their hard work and dedication and that Mercy faculty do not give grades or degrees – they are all earned. His hope was that all the graduates would be lifelong learners and contributors and he remarked that, while here at Sing Sing they are confronted by doors, bars, locks, short corridors and very real limits, through education they can break free to limitless possibilities.
After the diplomas were presented in front of the cheering families and supporters, Sean asked Harry Belafonte to say a few words, and thanked him for all that he had done for Hudson Link over so many years. Mr. Belafonte commented that he was lucky to be able to use his celebrity to help causes important to him.
Washington Post columnist George Will gave the closing remarks. We spoke before the ceremony, and agreed that programs like Hudson Link should have bipartisan appeal, as everyone should like the math. Sing Sing costs ~$60,000 per person per year and the recidivism rate for maximum security prisons is >60%*. Hudson Link has now graduated over 500 men. Its programs cost ~$5,000 per person per year, and their recidivism rate is ~4%!
George made wonderful and generous remarks, congratulating the graduates and telling them that while he has three earned degrees, from institutions like and Princeton and Trinity College, Oxford, as well as twenty-seven honorary degrees, the accomplishments of Wednesday’s graduates far outweigh his as they followed a road filled with unimaginable obstacles. His write up of the day is available here.
Bryonn Bain delivered the Benediction, apologizing and saying he told Sean that he was not the right man for the benediction as he is not a preacher, though he has a long interest in criminal justice stemming from an experience when he was attending Harvard Law and was wrongfully arrested by the NYPD. Now an educator, activist and artist, he regularly performs and lectures on the prison crisis at colleges and correctional facilities nationwide. Bryonn delivered a long poem that was perfectly tailored to the day and the degree recipients.
*The most recent study of recidivism within the Connecticut Department of Correction was completed in February of 2012 by the State Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division. The study followed 14,398 male sentenced offenders after they were released or discharged from a prison facility in 2005. The study found that within five years of their release; 79 percent were re-arrested, 69 percent were convicted of a new crime, and 50 percent were returned to prison with a new sentence}