When Sean Pica, executive director of the nonprofit Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, spoke at the Big Ideas Fest 2013 about operating degree-granting college programs in five New York prisons, he titled his talk “Redefining Difficult.”
The complexity of running any college program makes it a “nutty job,” Pica told attendees at the festival, which was sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education. But then add to that the challenges that the Hudson Link program has faced during its 14-year history — creating a program with “no funding, no [buildings], no phone, emails, or fax,” inside maximum-security environments, including Sing Sing Correctional Facility, in Ossining, New York. The prison, Pica said, was where he himself lived for nine years — and earned an undergraduate degree — while serving 16 years of a 24-year sentence.
Last December, Pica redefined difficult all over again. He and other Hudson Link staff, working with student inmates, program alumni, and volunteers, produced TEDxSingSing, a one-day conference with 20 presenters, a six-camera film crew, and an audience of 200. Inmates transformed a mess hall into a polished forum where incarcerated presenters shared a stage with outside speakers including rapper and actor Ice-T and actress and producer Gina Belafonte, along with warden Michael Capra.
Compounding the logistical challenges of staging a conference behind bars was the fact that inmates not only lacked access to phones and email, but had just two months to organize the program and could meet with one another in person only one evening a week. “It was nearly impossible,” said Pica, who, along with volunteers and Hudson Link graduates who were already outside the prison, did the things that inmates couldn’t do themselves, including contacting speakers and sponsors and creating a conference website.
Program alumni on the outside also worked with Pica to build sets. “We have an office about four blocks away from the prison, so the students that are already home helped me get the materials, build the sets, painted them, and then, of course, they couldn’t go back in,” Pica said. “When I went inside, I had directions from the guys that built it, and the guys on the inside just put it all back together.”
TEDxSingSing’s theme was “Creating Healthy Communities,” which gained the warden’s approval, Pica said, because it applied not just to the 159 inmates enrolled in Hudson Link classes at Sing Sing, but to the prison’s entire 1,864-person population. Student inmates issued an open call for anyone in the facility to audition to present. “It really went beyond just the textbooks and the classroom stuff,” Pica said.
The inmate organizers also invited outside groups and initiatives already active in the prison to participate. They included Carnegie Sing Sing, a group of inmate musicians and composers who work with Carnegie Hall artists to write music and perform concerts; Rehabilitation Through the Arts, which operates theater, dance, creative-writing, and visual-arts programs; and Voices From Within, a film project that records inmate stories that encourage alternatives to violence for young people outside prison.
For some of the seven inmates who made presentations, it was their first experience with public speaking. New York University artist-in-residence Bryonn Bain, a prison activist and poet, brought a team to the final rehearsal to help inmates refine their skills. One first-time speaker was inmate Lawrence Bartley who told the story of his struggle to support his premature son while he was in prison. His fellow inmates sacrificed their limited phone time, Bartley said, so he could spend hours every day talking to and encouraging his son while he was in the hospital.
Holding the conference at Sing Sing with the direct participation of inmates — including TEDxSingSing’s emcee, Jermaine Archer — and with an audience made up of an equal mix of inmates and visitors created the potential to connections that wouldn’t be possible outside the prison. “Having an emcee who’s been in prison for 14 years and is not coming home anytime soon stand in front of … guests who could be anywhere they want in the world, and talk about the connection between what happens in that prison and their own communities — it’s a difficult achievement for anyone,” Pica said.
It was “a day that was really memorable in a place that’s not supposed to be memorable,” Pica said. “I saw more people crying throughout the day than anything else, as the messages were delivered and as the guests got up and shared, and staff and wardens themselves participated. It’s just not what anyone would have thought could be happening in a max-security prison anywhere — let alone Sing Sing. There is probably no more notorious prison in the country.”
Pica understands, he said, that not everyone is in favor of the work that his organization, Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, is doing by educating people who have committed crimes. But “we know,” Pica said, “that education is the one thing that has an impact on recidivism.”
That was true for Pica himself, who was sentenced to 24 years in prison when he was just 16. When he left Sing Sing at age 33, all he had was a college degree that he earned behind bars. (He has since earned two additional master’s degrees and is working on an MBA.) It made a crucial difference.
Nationally, more than 43 percent of formerly incarcerated men and women return to prison within three years of their initial release; fewer than 1.4 percent of Hudson Link graduates return within that time. “We’re not changing lives,” Pica said. “We are saving them.”