Today, Monday, March 3, Governor Andrew Cuomo will announce the details of his initiative to provide college education and degrees to the incarcerated men and women of New York’s state prisons. In a statement released this past weekend, the Rt. Rev. Andrew Dietsche, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, praised the governor’s proposal, affirming that it “makes extraordinary practical sense;” inmates who have access to educational benefits are drastically less likely to return to prison upon release. Moreover, says Bp. Dietsche, prison education programs are “a living witness to Jesus’ teaching that in visiting the prisoner we are serving him, and to our baptismal mandate to “respect the dignity of every human being.”
In that spirit, Episcopal Charities is proud to support the Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, providing college education, life skills, leadership training and re-entry support to incarcerated men and women in five state prisons. Just last week, I joined John Talty, President of Episcopal Charities, and Board members Wendy Wade and the Rev. Roy Cole on a visit to Sing Sing Correctional Facility to experience the impact of Hudson Link’s program first hand. We met some of the incarcerated men who are transforming lives – their own, their families’, and their fellow inmates’ – with the help of Hudson Link.
Our visit began in Sing Sing’s Cell Block A, our nation’s largest prison block. Four noisy stories of barred cells and chain-link barriers, it houses more than 600 inmates. Standing in a brightly lit six-by-nine foot cell, I recalled the prayer (page 826 in the Book of Common Prayer) that all prisoners may be given “hope for their future”– and felt the true enormity of that plea.
But in the prison’s schoolrooms and among recently released program graduates, hope is tangible. The benefits of a college education extend beyond the skills and knowledge that these men acquire working with professors from local colleges. Lives are enriched – even redeemed – through relationships built in the classroom. During our visit, we had the opportunity to speak with a number of incarcerated students and recently released program graduates. Sitting in one of Sing Sing’s classrooms, one student described his own commitment to his fellow students and prisoners: “I am a leader. And before I got here, I led a lot of people into hell, into trouble… Now it’s my job to lead people back out.”
For the men we met, education means a way out of a cycle of hopelessness. Episcopal Charities supports programs that disrupt this cycle at multiple points. Our youth programs – particularly leadership development programs like the Freedom School Summer Camp at St. Ann’s Church in the South Bronx and the Girl Power program at St. George’s Church in Newburgh – help young people in our communities imagine bright futures for themselves. And we support programs for men and women who are returning to their communities and families – many of whom did not have the advantage of programs like Hudson Link during their incarceration. These programs include Harlem’s Re-entry Circles of Faith and Support and the Dutchess Collaborative Re-entry Project in Poughkeepsie. Hope abounds, and all who faithfully support the efforts of our parishes’ outreach programs can be proud to be part of this network of hope for prisoners and the formerly incarcerated in the Diocese of New York.