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Five hours at Sing Sing prison | Letters from New York | Katherine Meeks

I rise at 6am to catch an early train from Grand Central Station. My goal is Sing Sing Prison, one of America’s most famous prisons, and yes, it looks just like it does in all those prison movies –old and gritty. It’s about an hour north of New York City by train, the tracks follow the edge of the Hudson River.  Locally, “going up the river” was another expression for being sent to prison to do hard time. Sing Sing is a maximum-security prison. 

It’s a special day. the past 41 years, a postgraduate institution called New York Theological Seminary (NYTS) has been offering a master’s degree to Sing Sing inmates, funded by private donations. Sing Sing is regarded as its “North Campus.” For a long time, it was the only master’s degree programme in the U.S. for prisoners. Now there are a couple more, and NYTS has just this year opened its first master’s programme at a New York women’s prison. Cohorts are small, generally only nine students.  Participants must have earned a bachelor’s degree first. And, after having been de-funded in the mid 90’s, undergraduate college programmes are slowly coming back into the prisons, with federal and state funding having been restored.     

Today is graduation day for the NYTS master’s degree programme.    

In my life as an educator, I have attended many graduations. But nothing beats a prison graduation. Grads tell me it’s the best day of their lives. All the speakers are inspiring with ad aspera per astra themes (“a rough road leads to the stars”), but the student speakers usually trump them all, because they are down to earth, and they talk about themselves. And they almost always shed tears, their mothers shed tears, and no one is unmoved. One student speaker addressed his mother telling her it was the first time he felt he had made her proud. She denied this, but it was true for him. For all of them it is a rare occasion: instead of continuously being publicly shamed in front of their families in court proceedings and through prison protocols, they are being honoured for once. It means the world to them. The stories they tell are amazing – coming into prison illiterate, and then graduating with a summa cum laude degree.  Of not knowing what education was – except as trending occasionally as a must-have at a certain prison, like Nike shoes.   Of being sentenced to fifty years – and suddenly realizing the necessity of doing something in life – and education was what was available.       

Alejandro A., this year’s student speaker, relates his criminal journey, through arrest at 13, a group home at 14, a juvenile facility at 15, and adult prison at 19, where he landed at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, aka “Gladiator School for Teenagers.” It’s where they allegedly send young gang members to get some of the fight out of them by fighting each other. Alejandro’s theme is help. Inside and outside prison, people were offering him help. But he saw accepting “help” as a negative thing, as do many. Halfway into his short address, amid tears, Alejandro also addresses words to his mother sitting in the audience. He speaks in Spanish to her, then translates for us. He is thanking her for her ultimatum at the age of 21:  he had to go to school. He had to change. If not, the family was excommunicating him. No more visits and he’d be on his own unless he went to school. And did the homework. And graduated. He knew she meant it. And then he relates how a few corrections officers piled on ; “How old are you?  My daughter is the same age. She’s in college.” And, “You don’t look like a dummy. Why don’t you get some help?  Why don’t you get an education?”  Before, these brief exchanges would have bounced off him. But not now.  Alejandro then recounted his educational journey: a one-year certificate programme, pre-college, associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree and now NYTS.  And how his prison supervisors supported him, offering to continuously change around his work assignments so he could attend classes. 

He explains how education changes with the simple maxim, “Small minds talk about others. Average minds talk about events. And great minds talk about ideas.”  “In the yard,” he explains, “that’s all what we talk about – people. And then when we get a little education, we talk about events. But when we get deep into education, that’s when we talk about ideas.”  Alejandro has received the “Most Questioning Student” award.  

But it’s not all abstract ideas.  The thrust of the NYTS program is toward urban ministry – i.e. human services in “urban” areas. “Urban” is the American euphemism for “inner city” which is in itself a euphemism for “ghetto” or concentrated low- income districts. (When whites fled the cities for the suburbs and shopping malls, the inner city is where the poor got concentrated in crowded and crumbling buildings with limited services. A large proportion of the inmates in the state system come from a handful of urban areas around the state, a large number of them in and around New York City.)  For the master’s degree capstone project, students have to create and write a business plan for a non-profit agency with a particular goal to serve the disadvantaged.  Some of them actually go out and do this. Others wind up  working for a nonprofit of some kind. Graduates of the NYTS program are also often godsends while still incarcerated. They play a huge role in making the other education programmes work, and recruiting and mentoring others. The assumption behind the programme is: who better than incarcerated individuals to motivate other incarcerated individuals, and to serve as role models?  From what I have seen, working in prisons for 20 years now, that assumption is quite right.  And research shows again and again, the more education, the lower the recidivism. 

But I think it is not solely the education – i.e. new knowledge – that is the key to rehabilitation.  It is the therapeutic value of in-person education. It is the relationships that are formed between students and professors, and among students. They get to know each other on a profound level. They begin to understand others and understand themselves.  One student speaker from another year said, “It’s not every day that a man is introduced to himself”.

Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck in his influential book on both love and self-discipline (The Road Less Traveled) defines love this way: “The will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Spiritual growth may be defined broadly – becoming one’s best self.  But consciously or unconsciously, this is the kind of love that teachers in this educational programme give.  Students are provided the experience of others being interested in them, and wanting to nurture their success and well-being. For some who grew up on the street, it may be the first time they’ve experienced this in any steady way. They see others willing to make sacrifices to mentor and support their growth. 

Self-love develops. It powers students’ own efforts to grow, and to nurture the growth of others.  In effective prison education programmes, students feel the love.  And that, if you ask me, is key.              

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