In-person learning suspended. The lives of students and alumni at risk. How did Hudson Link transform to support college behind bars in the age of COVID-19 — and keep moving ahead on plans to create the first freestanding campus within U.S. prison walls?
When in-prison college classes were suspended by Hudson Link in early March 2020 to protect students, faculty, and staff from COVID-19 — and with no online option available to New York State’s incarcerated men and women — 650 students worried about research papers, exams, and graduation.
When the virus posed elevated risks to people living in the close quarters of prison and crowded apartments back home — 650 students worried about the health of their families, their former classmates, and themselves.
At the sudden withdrawal of human contact from colleagues, teachers, and visitors — 650 students worried they’d be forgotten.
These worries weighed heavily on Sean Pica, both as a formerly incarcerated person and as the executive director of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison. Established in 1998, the nonprofit organization provides college education and reentry services to men and women in five New York correctional facilities, including Sing Sing, the notorious maximum-security prison outside New York City. (Hudson Link became a Stand Together Foundation Catalyst Partner in 2017.)
So Sean published a heartfelt letter to students and supporters that pledged his organization’s continued commitment to them, and then he set out to prove it.
Extra creativity was required to save the semester, given the virus and lack of online access for incarcerated students.
The program has been transformative not just for the incarcerated individuals who receive college degrees, but also as part of a broader movement to change the way that society treats the criminal justice system. And with lives on the line, weighty new decisions needed to be made.
What ensued was what Sean called “an amazing triage” to figure out how and when Hudson Link could do the most good, safely. The result was a quick pivot in their processes and services, which had always been highly dependent on person-to-person contact, easy access to supplies, and sufficient time to prepare students for release from prison.
“Hudson Link is doing all we can to communicate with our students regularly, to keep them informed, and most importantly to remind them they are not alone, and they have not been forgotten. There may be social distance. But there doesn’t have to be social silence.”
Sean Pica, Executive Director of Hudson Link
Hudson Link staff and faculty members from participating colleges helped salvage the spring semester at all five prisons by arranging hard-copy correspondence solutions for coursework and tests, which entailed rotating people into the office safely to retrieve textbooks and make copies of assignments. Prison staff helped distribute academic materials to students directly in the cell blocks.
The result? Instead of letting the pandemic disruption derail them, well over 80 percent of students powered through and triumphantly completed their classes. And a noteworthy 23 of them managed to graduate on time — though without the fanfare of a normal graduation ceremony.
“During a strange and tough time for all colleges and their students, we’re so proud of our whole team for refusing to disappoint hundreds of students in these prisons,” said Sean, “and equally proud of our students who persevered under very difficult conditions.” He explained that many are first-generation college students, so a large percentage who miss even a single semester perceive the hurdle as too high and don’t return to the classroom.
The pandemic also made release from prison — normally a joyous occasion — an unnerving scramble, particularly for students who were suddenly granted emergency release. Hudson Link’s post-prison ritual of escorting a student out and setting them up with a welcome-home bag, laptop, technical support, and in some cases housing, now posed health risks. Nonetheless, the team overcame the obstacles and used proper precautions to help each person find safe shelter, get connected with resources, and prepare to find jobs.
Hudson Link’s extraordinary alumni association gets a hand from Stand Together partners.
About 80 percent of Hudson Link alumni gravitate toward jobs as caseworkers, social workers, and counselors helping people in need. Like millions of other Americans, they’ve been blindsided by reduced work hours, furloughs, and layoffs. Many have been impacted by the virus more directly by testing positive or living with someone who had.
“Your [#GiveTogetherNow] contribution allowed me to buy the medication my mother so desperately needed, pay the light bill, and put food on the table. My Hudson Link family…without people like you, our brothers and sisters would be lost in the struggle, forgotten, dismissed. You…refuse to define us by a mistake that took many years of our lives. Thank you so much to Stand Together.”
Steve, Hudson Link alumnus
To help them cope, Hudson Link tapped into#GiveTogetherNow, a collaboration between Stand Together and Family Independence Initiative, a Catalyst partner that makes direct cash payments to families in need. Thanks to the incredible generosity of individuals, organizations, and companies donating to that campaign, Hudson Link was granted the ability to identify 150 program alumni affected by the pandemic to receive $500 each to pay urgent expenses.
The infamous Sing Sing is where it all began — and where a famous future is being constructed.
Michael Tineo is one of many Hudson Link graduates to have earned his college degree from Mercy College inside Sing Sing, a place that outsiders may not normally associate with higher learning. His story is emblematic of the redemptive power of education and of Stand Together Foundation’s deeply held belief that given the right support, every person can reach their full potential.
He graduated in July of 2019, first in his class. Taking the stage to address a crowd of 43 fellow graduates and their nearly 400 family and friends on that memorable day, Michael fought off tears as he spoke directly to his teenage daughter who was sitting in the audience. “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.”
Reading from his notes, 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.” Then he looked up to catch his daughter’s response. The smile on her face told him all he needed to know.
With eyes firmly on the future, Hudson Link is collaborating on a project to refurbish a 45,000-square-foot abandoned building within Sing Sing’s walls by 2025. It will enable them to double the prison’s student body to 400 — and make Sing Sing newly famous for housing the first-ever freestanding college campus in a U.S. prison.
The pandemic caused a short delay in demolition work. But Sean notes that the men living at the prison who are participating in the project are still being motivated by a strong sense of purpose, which is bringing them back to life as they bring the building back to life — a powerful step in the rehabilitation process.
And thanks to the building’s exterior staircases that allow students and staff to circumvent construction zones, occupancy of the new educational hub doesn’t have to wait until the end of the project — it can take place one floor at a time as each is completed. The first floor alone will boast 11 classrooms, a big improvement over the current four-and-a-half rooms for instruction and an office inside Sing Sing proper.
Hudson Link is helping drive revolutionary changes in the way America thinks about, talks about, and addresses criminal justice.
As a model for prisons nationwide, Hudson Link demonstrates how rehabilitation is an important path to justice and benefits society at large. The program’s remarkably low recidivism rate — about two percent for its 850-plus students who have returned to their families and communities from five prisons, compared to a 43 percent recidivism rate for New York’s entire incarcerated population — saves state taxpayers more than $21 million per year.
Behind prison walls, Hudson Link students are inspiring those not yet in the program with a sense of dignity, self-worth, and value — one reason the waiting list is so long. People have seen transformative change and want to be part of it.
Externally, as word of Hudson Link’s success — and the success of other groups like it — spreads within the criminal justice system, it’s helping drive change nationwide. It proves that it’s possible to increase public safety through recidivism reduction, while at the same time providing deserving offenders with a second chance at pursuing a life of meaning, contribution, and fulfillment.
Most prisons worry about preventing breakouts. Your support can help prisons focus on achieving life-altering breakthroughs. Explore the Hudson Link experience further in this video and related Stand Together story, and tell your Partnership Advisor you want to help expand the program to give thousands more people living in incarceration a chance to transform their lives.
Top photo caption: Michael Tineo delivers the valedictory address at his college graduation in Sing Sing prison outside New York City, before the pandemic hit. Photo credit: Matt Couch