A Letter from Our Executive Director
When colleges started contingency planning, teachers started asking about cancellations, and board members started calling, there was only one thought that crossed my mind, “I need to get inside one more time.” I knew our students were panicking, and I knew it was only a matter of time before the scariest thing that could ever happen inside a prison would occur: silence.
As a formerly incarcerated leader in the field of higher education in prison, I often feel it’s my obligation to represent the needs and concerns of the people inside the correctional facilities we serve. Our organization, Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, has spent the past twenty-two years running degree-granting college programs inside New York State correctional facilities, with a handful of like-minded programs committed to providing educational opportunities to those behind bars. Hudson Link is unique because we are primarily run and staffed by formerly incarcerated individuals. Born out of the idea that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, the leadership by formerly incarcerated people is integral to our model. We know how to work with New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. We know the rules and regulations. We are living proof of the transformative power of education. But most importantly, we know what it means to live inside these prisons.
In prison, college programs are a place where incarcerated individuals can be students. We can learn. We can create. We can envision a world bigger than us. Most importantly, we connect. With each other. With our professors. With the world.
It was during my incarceration that Pell and TAP funding ended and colleges packed their books up overnight. The removal of college from prisons in the early 1990s was devastating in the sense that literally overnight, it felt like we lost all connection to the outside world. The silence that fell upon the prison after college went away was deafening. There was a lack of information. A lack of opportunities. And in turn, we lacked hope. While I’m mindful that COVID-19 is only temporarily making in-person instruction impossible, I eerily remember what it feels like when colleges stop showing up in prisons.
The decision to suspend in person instruction was not made lightly. It was made not only out of concern for the students, but for the safety of our staff, professors, and the facility staff. When I went to deliver the news to the students, my heart was heavy. Many had questions about research papers, about midterm deadlines, and about graduation. But mostly, they were worried about us. And they are worried about their families. In my discussions with NYSDOCCS, it was clear that suspending in-person visitation was inevitable, but no visits mean less and less connection to the outside world and more silence.
While my team has made arrangements with our partner colleges and facility liaisons to get the students what they need to continue classes via correspondence for the next coming weeks (online classes are not currently an option for those in NYS custody), I can’t help but want to share the impact COVID-19 has had on our prison education community, an incarcerated student body, and those of us who teach, staff, and run these programs. These are uncertain times and being incarcerated adds another layer of complexity. What does social distancing mean to those who are already socially distanced? And to those who need social inclusivity and community in order to prepare for release?
While I am grateful our college partners are allowing our students to complete correspondence assignments in the next few weeks, I am reminded that effective higher education in prison must be delivered in person. Yes, the academics are important. But it is the community aspect of higher education that makes our programs effective. I believe it’s the socialization our students get inside the classroom with our faculty and each other that allows our programs to be successful. It’s about inclusion. It’s about a bunch of people working together for a common goal. It’s about men and women helping each other with pre-calc in the yard. It changes the conversations in the housing units and in the mess halls. Prison administrators will agree, it creates safer prisons. Why? Because it creates a sense of community and social inclusivity in a place that often limits it. Prisons are a form of social distancing. Prisons are where society places those who they want distant. But in order to prepare people for re-entry, in order to prepare students for meaningful lives back into their community, we must provide in-person educational programs because they play a critical role in providing a social education. We understand right now it’s not safe for us to be inside with our students, but as soon as appropriate, we must reinstate face to face instruction.
For years I have been be fearful of the argument that distance learning is safer. From a security standpoint, I know it may seem safer to upload curriculum on a tablet and let incarcerated students learn from a cell. But no tablet can replace the interpersonal relationships developed in the classroom between faculty and students or replace the peer learning and mentorship I received from my classmates at Sing Sing. Many of those men are still in my life today. And while in our field, we cite the same benefits of in-person learning that is widely used in the field of higher education, I want to explain, that it is even more critical in a prison setting to offer in-person instruction. While on-campus students are moving to online instruction in the wake of COVID-19, they still have access to one another, their families, and their communities either in person or at their fingertips. The incarcerated student does not readily have access to this kind of human connection; this current crisis highlights, how the college experience-with its socialization and community building– is critical in preparing those who have been socially distant for release.
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. I think half my hope in sharing this is just to be able to tell them I have done something to break the silence. There may be social distance. But there doesn’t have to be social silence. Please watch this space and our social media for more information about ways to support our incarcerated students during these challenging times.
Thank you so much for your continued support,