It’s June. And like at many institutions this time of year, a graduation ceremony is about to take place. Here, a steady stream of four hundred family members, friends, and well-wishers are taking their place excited for the ceremonies to begin.
But unlike most graduation ceremonies, this one is not taking place in a school. It’s at Sing Sing Correctional Facility – the notorious maximum-security prison outside New York City on the shores of the picturesque Hudson River. Today’s graduation ceremony is one of the largest graduations to date with 44 students receiving a Bachelor of Science and Associate of Science degrees.
Every graduation ceremony has its conductor. This one is no exception. His name is Sean Pica, a charismatic and outgoing New Yorker from Long Island, who is also a former Boy Scout and the son of a former police officer.
And like all of the graduates on this day, Sean is also a convicted criminal.
Sean Pica, Executive Director of Hudson Link Stand Together Foundation
After serving sixteen years inside the very prison housing today’s graduation ceremony, Sean eventually joined the staff of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, a non-profit providing a college education and reentry support services to men and women incarcerated across six New York prisons. Today, Sean is the group’s executive director and the lead organizer of today’s graduation ceremony.
By partnering with local accredited colleges and universities, Hudson Link has provided more than 700 college degrees to New York prison inmates since 1998. Sean was among some of the first inmates to receive a college degree through Hudson Link.
But for most of the incarcerated men enrolled in Hudson Link at Sing Sing, Sean is more than the group’s executive director. He is also a friend and a listening ear. Sean’s infectious personality is evident in today’s graduation ceremony as dozens of Hudson Link students and alumni come up to greet him and share a laugh. High-fives, pats on the back and bear hugs are exchanged in rapid succession.
More than someone easy to talk to, Sean is also a role model and living proof that it’s possible to succeed after being incarcerated, especially in one of the country’s toughest prisons.
The Largest Sing-Sing College Graduation Stand Together Foundation
In conversations with Hudson Link graduates – some whom are still facing years before being eligible for parole – Sean is referred to time and time again as a “credible messenger” because he is able to connect with them in a way others cannot. Being formally incarcerated at Sing-Sing, Sean knows first-hand what it feels like to experience the anger, shame, and despair of being behind bars.
Sentenced a to a 24-year prison sentence at the age of 16, Sean remembers thinking his life was over. He struggled to fit into his new environment and had a hard time believing that this was his new life. Sean defied authorities early into his prison sentence and was sent to solitary confinement twice.
But like all of the graduates receiving a college diploma on this day, Sean has also experienced a moment of clarity and a renewed sense of purpose and hope.
For Sean, it was being approached by a corrections officer who asked if he might be able to help other fellow inmates communicate with their families. Sean didn’t know it at the time, but even with only a 9th grade education, he was one of the most educated individuals at Sing Sing.
From there, a seed was planted. Sean soon realized the power that comes with having an education. Word spread and soon Sean was helping dozens of fellow inmates. Not long after, Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison started at Sing Sing. When the time came for participants to enroll, Sean was accepted into the first class and was part of the inaugural graduating class of sixteen students.
In 2002, Sean was eventually able to walk outside Sing Sing as a free man. Sean realized that he had a unique skill set and could lean on his personal experiences to be an advocate and a voice for those still incarcerated. An offer to work full-time for Hudson Link soon followed. This hiring decision soon became the norm for the group. Today, sixty percent of Hudson Link staff are graduates of the program.
Under Sean’s leadership as Hudson Link’s executive director, the group has grown exponentially attracting hundreds of individual donors, as well as significant investments from philanthropists, foundations and faith-based organizations all drawn to the group’s unique mission.
Hudson Link’s pitch is compelling. New York taxpayers spend around $60,000 a year to incarcerate one person, but it costs only $5,000 a year to educate one prisoner through Hudson Link. In conversations with current Hudson Link students and alumni, all were quick to point out that virtually all prisoners will one day be released from prison. The question then is: who would you rather have as your neighbor – someone who has been spending his time in prison receiving an education, or someone who has been biding his time and continues to lack any discernable new skills, education, or work experience to reenter the workforce?
In New York, 43 percent of men and women released from prison will be rearrested within three years of being released. Hudson Link meanwhile boasts an impressive two recidivism rate for all students who earn a college degree – meaning 98 percent go on to build and lead productive lives outside of prison.
For Christopher, a Hudson Link graduate and currently incarcerated individual at Sing Sing, the recidivism rate only tells half the story. Christopher says his decision to complete a college education is inspiring his family members and fellow students to follow in his footsteps. Christopher beams with pride as he talks about his three daughters, two currently enrolled in college, and the other planning on attending law school in the fall.
Impacting future generations Stand Together Foundation
The children of many of the students enrolled in Hudson Link are just as proud to see their fathers receive a college diploma. The daughter of Michael, the valedictorian in today’s graduation ceremony, was in attendance listening to her father read a letter he wrote to her while incarcerated. “I apologize to you because somewhere along the way, I got lost and made it difficult for you to see and understand just how much I love you.” Michael continued: “Honestly, your daddy is not valedictorian because I’m that smart. Truthfully, it’s that you’ve been that much of an inspiration to me.”
Verdun Perry, the commencement address speaker and a senior managing director at Blackstone, spoke movingly to the graduates about his own personal connection to incarceration.
With graduates hanging on to his every word, Perry told them he knows what it’s like to have a Christmas dinner out of a prison vending machine because his younger brother spent twelve years in a maximum-security prison. Much to the surprise of everyone in the room, Perry told the crowd that his brother had to receive special permission to travel outside of the state just to be in attendance at today’s Hudson Link graduation ceremony. “He came here to be with you out of solidarity,” Perry said. The crowd erupted in applause.
Soon after, Perry told the graduates to turn around and look at their families and loved ones in attendance: “that is the definition of unconditional love…period.”
For tens of thousands of men and women in prison, a lack of education is a barrier to opportunity. Not having the ability to read, write and communicate effectively limits their ability to improve their lives and those around them. Hudson Link is doing both of these things and creating a ripple effect of positive change.
Sean is quick to point out that this isn’t the norm. “Statistically, 68 percent of the men and women in prison return in the first three years of being released,” Sean adds, “I shouldn’t be here.”
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But when thinking about Hudson Link’s future, Sean’s face lights up. He is excited about the possibility of others joining forces with him to provide hundreds of incarcerated individuals waiting in line to enroll in Hudson Link. Some are forced to wait two years before they are able to enroll. Sean knows that there is much more that Hudson Link for Higher Education can accomplish if more and more believe in the potential of these men and their ability to transform their own lives.
By the time Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” played loudly on the speakers once the procession ended, it would have been hard to distinguish this graduation ceremony from so many others. The joy was palpable and contagious. Opportunity seemed limitless, past the barbed wire, onto the Hudson River.
Take an inside look at the Hudson Link Program inside Sing-Sing.