A Ministry of Second Chances
Nyack’s higher education in prison program
“‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’” (Matt. 25:35–36; emphasis added).
For more than a century, Nyack (N.Y.) College has sent men and women to do more than just visit prison inmates.
As far back as the late 1890s, Bible classes conducted at Sing Sing prison by Mrs. Virginia dePeyster Field were legendary. Mrs. Field was a colleague of Dr. A. B. Simpson and also a member of the faculty of the Missionary Training Institute (MTI), now Nyack College. A pioneering member of The Christian and Missionary Alliance’s Board of Managers, her signature is on the original articles of incorporation.
Inspired by her study of the Gospels—and specifically of Matthew 25:36—Mrs. Field sought and received approval from the New York State Commissioner of Corrections to hold classes at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, N.Y. Her outreach ministry teams included MTI students, and after her death in 1922, MTI alumni carried on her prison ministry through the 1950s.
Fast forward nearly five decades, and the evidence of Mrs. Field’s legacy prevails.
When federal funding for education in prisons was cut in the late 1990s, Nyack College joined forces in 2000 with Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, a Westchester County, N.Y., nonprofit established by Dr. Anne Reissner in 1999 to restore opportunities for education. In 2001, Nyack College graduated its first cohort of 17 men who finished the adult degree program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, as it is now known.
After this milestone graduation, the program needed a sufficient number of inmates who would be in the facility for 14 months—and have 60 college credits—for the program to continue. Numbers for another Sing Sing cohort were short, but Nyack was undeterred by the shortfall and subsequently began offering single courses in Taconic Correctional Facility for Women, a medium-security facility in Bedford Hills.
Today the Hudson Link program is led by executive director Sean Pica, who was among the 2001 Sing Sing graduates who earned Nyack degrees. At 16, Sean’s life was anything but sweet; that’s when he entered the New York State Department of Corrections system. The son of a New York City police officer, Sean was not above the law when he made a youthful decision to commit a crime. The guilty verdict resulted in an 8- to 24-year sentence. He spent some 16 years in several maximum-security correctional facilities—Elmira, Coxsackie, Great Meadow, Eastern, Greenhaven, Shawanagunk, Down State, and eventually, Sing Sing. As an adolescent, Sean was being conditioned to suppress emotion and build a hardened exterior to survive his incarceration. That could have become his prison within a prison, but Nyack College unlocked doors for Sean that might otherwise have been shut tight.
By the time he entered the Nyack adult degree completion program, Sean had accumulated 118 college credits from several in-prison undergraduate courses. After Sean earned the Nyack bachelor of science degree in 2001, he went on to complete a master of science degree in professional studies at New York Theological Seminary, a master’s degree in social work from Hunter College, and two certificate programs—one in health and human services and one in physical therapy. In 2014, Sean was appointed to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Council on Community Re-Entry and Reintegration, a taskforce that addresses obstacles men and women encounter after release from prison.
The Christ-like love that Mrs. Field took into Sing Sing is the same love that men and women from Nyack College continue to share in the educational/mentoring relationships with people like former Sing Sing inmate Darryl Butler. This 2003 Nyack College Hudson Link grad also completed a master’s degree in professional studies at New York Theological Seminary. Today he is working on his master’s degree in social work at Fordham University while fulfilling his degree requirements for field placement through an internship with Hudson Link.
Continuing his personal development through community-based self-help courses, Darryl explains how he was able to persevere. “My faith provided me with a sense of confidence, compassion, purpose, and determination that I had only heard about.”
After his release, Darryl began to visit churches where he was touched by the experience of worship services. “The central theme that spoke to my heart was that God loves us and though we fall, His love is still there for us to repent and move on doing the good that we were meant to do. This message of unconditional love radically changed me, and I became strong enough to endure the ridicule of others who were still trying to find their way.”
Other Nyack College/Hudson Link success stories include John Conyers, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Saving our Society, which identifies organizations or businesses that will employ formerly incarcerated men and women and provides general mentoring, and Thomas Ryer, who is executive director of Public Affairs and Advocacy for the Men’s Empowerment Network, a multicultural organization whose mission is to develop and mentor men and boys. Thomas has also been involved in the Forestdale Fathering Initiative, an innovative program that helps noncustodial fathers strengthen their bonds with their children and families. His work focuses on outreach to teens and younger fathers.
The benefits of in-prison college programs were substantiated in a 2009 report, “Education from the Inside, Out,” issued by the Corrections Association of New York, the state’s oldest criminal justice organization. The paper concludes that postsecondary education reduces recidivism, gives inmates an incentive for good behavior, and produces well-read, articulate leaders who have a calming influence on other inmates and even on prison employees.
Nyack seized an opportunity that still produces tremendous outcomes. While the national rate of recidivism is 43 percent, Hudson Link’s is less than 2 percent. Sing Sing’s class of 2001 still boasts a 0 percent recidivism rate.
“When I shook hands with each new Nyack College graduate, I didn’t see a man and his past; I saw a man and the possibilities for his future,” commented Dr. Michael G. Scales, Nyack’s president, after a recent commencement ceremony for 24 men at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, N.Y.
“We are delighted to be part of this personally transforming program that infuses tremendous hope in the lives of the incarcerated.”
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