How college degrees provide prisoners with a real second chance

August 30, 2018

For some, a 24-year prison sentence at the age of 16 might close all doors to higher education.

 

For Sean Pica, who faced more than two decades behind bars after shooting and killing the father of a classmate, it was an unexpected chance to turn around his life and others’.

“When I try to wrap my head around the fact that I took a human life, the world got small really quickly,” Pica said.

 

As Pica sat in his New York state prison cell and thought about how he had failed everybody, an officer approached him to see if he could work with other inmates.

“I kind of just thought he was messing with me, because I didn’t even finish high school,” Pica recalled.

 

Pica began to read to other prisoners, hoping to teach them how to read and write. After serving 16 years in prison, he connected upon release with Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, the non-profit organization that had helped him discover his skills behind bars and earn his GED and other degrees. Hudson Link, which is supported by Koch Industries and other community partners, provides college education and support to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. Now its executive director, Pica is working to end the cycle of recidivism and set people up for success upon their release.

 

The program is more than just a college education. Pica entered a different world upon his release from prison, recalling that the internet did not exist when he was first incarcerated as well as the “daunting” task of learning how to use new technology, like cellphones. With that experience, Pica’s program has incorporated life skills lessons—from business attire to networking dinners—to help prisoners prepare for the adjustment.

 

Pica, whose parents are retired New York City police officers, acknowledged the importance of receiving a second chance. Others who attended school with him, and those currently in the program, are just getting their first chance. That means everything to the communities that will welcome them home.

 

“They’re coming back as helpers. They’re getting jobs. They’re helping the community. They’re becoming case workers or social workers. That’s an investment. And it’s not about helping them. It’s about helping the communities they come from,” Pica said.

 

Jermaine Archer, a Hudson Link participant, is the fourth generation in his family to be incarcerated. He credits the program with helping him to realize his potential.

 

“I took my gift for money to become a drug dealer,” Archer said. “The education was very important. I didn’t realize the connection between what I already knew, my natural talents, and success.”

 

Hudson Link has awarded more than 600 college degrees, and the recidivism rate of its participants is a small fraction of the New York state rate of 43 percent.

 

“This is an accredited, degree-granting college program. Their degree doesn’t say University of Sing Sing. It says Nyack College. It says Mercy College, Columbia University,” Pica said. “I have seen the rippling effect of that one degree as it goes into their families, their children, their neighbors, their community. We are helping the community through this one person and this one degree.”

 

This story originally appeared as a Freedom to Flourish segment, sponsored by Koch Industries, on Hill.TV’s Rising with Krystal & Buck.