This unexpected classroom is proving that education can unlock even the heaviest of doors.

There’s a new college campus that will have its first inaugural class of graduates enroll in 2020. While new colleges and university programs pop up all over the world each year, this one is different. The students in this program are incarcerated men. Hudson Link, the non-profit behind this innovative program, is helping their students earn a second chance and reach their full potential through the power of education.

To date, Hudson Link has helped hundreds of students earn diplomas, and now they are doubling their efforts by creating the first ever “college campus” located in prison. In the infamous Sing-Sing facility none the less. This new initiative will help even more students to earn real degrees from accredited colleges to bolster their transition back into society.

Education and the opportunity to expand our thinking plays a vital role in transforming lives. The same is true for the individuals Hudson Link serves – and their 2% recidivism rate over the last two decades is compelling proof. While many education programs and classes are offered to incarcerated individuals around the country, Hudson Link is one of the only ones offering bachelor degrees from accredited universities, like Columbia University, Vassar, and St. Thomas Aquinas College.

Reentering society after serving time in the correctional system is no easy feat, a reality known through stories we hear as well as reinforced by the numbers.

A nine-year study published in January 2019 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed that the US currently has an 83% recidivism rate. There are many factors that can prevent someone from achieving transformation, despite their efforts to find and stay on the right path. But the power of education and the programming provided in prison is showcasing the power to change this paradigm.

One of the unique aspects of their program is this: 70% of Hudson Link’s staff is made up of formerly incarcerated individuals, including Executive Director Sean Pica. Sean—whose 16-year sentence began when he was still in braces and barely old enough to shave—is helping to instill a sense of hope for members of New York State’s prison system. When we first met Sean, it was immediately clear that he was passionate about this project. Having experienced the program himself, his unique perspective contributes to his ability to drive the vision of the organization and keep his hand on the pulse of the needs of the students. Running it night and day, he was making tremendous headway to achieve his organization’s vision with little in the way of additional support and resources.

Sean believes that the strongest measure of Hudson Link’s success is that the students it serves are able to find employment within just a few weeks after being released—perhaps the most important factor reducing their chances of returning to prison.

Before working with Stand Together Foundation, Hudson Link was in three prison facilities. Their efforts have since expanded to five facilities with over 600 students.

“Since we've been working with Stand Together Foundation, the breadth of what we've been able to offer has practically doubled. It's just been incredible, not just the number of people we can serve, but how they're helping me think about the decisions as a leader and how I make those decisions has been huge for us.”

- Sean Pica, Hudson Link Executive Director

Today, Sean has been able to expand his energy into fostering new initiatives to further improve the lives of individuals once released. Hudson Link is growing to offer supplemental programs such as construction initiatives and housing projects.

Hudson Link’s work doesn’t just benefit its graduates. Rather, everyone in the community is impacted as spouses, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters return to their family and neighborhood proud of the new path that they have carved, often breaking generational cycles of incarceration in their wake.

The very fabric of society is being transformed—empowering real fresh-starts and second chances for men and women who have served their time and have more to offer their families and communities. No one feels these effects more than the Hudson Link graduates themselves, of course, who represent an optimistic statistic: 34% of graduates from Hudson Link’s programs have received graduate degrees. This number alone is a reminder of the power of optimism, education, and the reality that a little hope can transform lives for good.

In July, Sing-Sing celebrated its largest graduating class and Sean said, “The room is packed with 400 friends and family. It is just more exciting than any other commencement I've seen in or out of prison. The officers are as excited as the prison administrators and folks from the central office. It’s infectious.

There's a vibe around the room of—this is our second chance. We're grasping it and we're moving forward and everybody wants a piece of that.”

- Sean Pica, Hudson Link Executive Director