By Lindsay Emery
Sean Pica was hired as the first executive director of the Hudson Link for Higher Education in 2007, but recidivism rates for ex-convicts suggested he should have never gotten his job.
“It’s 68 percent of the men and women in this country that go to prison return to prison,” he said. “I’m not supposed to be here right now running a nonprofit. I’m supposed to be back in prison.”
Hudson Link offers pre-college, two-year and four-year college education programs to more than 640 incarcerated men and women in five prisons throughout the Hudson Valley, as well as providing support for re-entry into society once they leave prison. Pica, who helps develop relationships between the colleges and the prisons, was in the room when the program was founded.
Pica was on the verge of earning his bachelor’s degree in 1994 when Congress eliminated Pell grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals. At the time, Pica had accumulated 118 credits through various colleges, when the legislation temporarily derailed him. He had earned an associate’s degree from Ulster Community College at Shawangunk Correctional Facility in 1991.
However, with no federal funding, there was a push by prisoners to create college programming for prisoners through other sources. He was invited by some of the men who had already graduated to sit in on conversations about how to create a nonprofit organization. In 1998, Hudson Link was established.
“In the end, what these guys did was create Hudson Link as a nonprofit and that acted as a third-party facilitator that would coordinate the Department of Corrections interaction, registration and selection of students, raise the money to pay the colleges and figure out which college would be the partner,” said Pica, who is currently working on his MBA after earning masters in professional studies and another in social work.
Hudson Link raises every penny privately. When Pica started, the annual budget was about $280,000 but that has expanded to $2.4 million. Hudson Link has also become a third-party facilitator model that has been replicated in other states.
The higher education program has a two-year waiting list at some sites. In order to be accepted, an applicant must have a high school diploma or a General Education Diploma (GED), Pica said. For those without a high school or equivalency diploma, the Department of Corrections offers a high school program. The inmate is required to have one discipline-free year, which is harder than it sounds, Pica said.
“So living in a max security prison, and be disciplinary-free for one year, you need something to motivate you for that because otherwise there are a lot of things that are going on that you’re not really motivated to not get into trouble,” he said.
An inmate is also not allowed to have any disciplinary infractions during the college program. Therefore, the program has a positive ripple effect on the prison’s population, Pica said.
“If we have 200 students at Sing Sing alone and there’s only 1,800 in the whole prison and 200 can’t have a disciplinary infraction, all of a sudden, it has this effect on this whole population that you just can’t even imagine,” he said.
Hudson Link is in five prisons across New York state – Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Greene Correctional Facility, Taconic Correctional Facility, Sullivan Correctional Facility and Shawangunk – with different colleges partnering at each site. All sites offer a college preparatory program and offer different degrees and course studies depending on the colleges that are at each prison.
The classes that are offered through Hudson Link’s program are the same as the ones that are offered through the college that they are partnered with. Hudson Link only runs in-person classes and uses adjunct professors who are paid the same rate as if they were on campus. Computer labs on a closed system are available at all five sites so that students have the opportunity to conduct research, write and print their papers for their professors.
Pica said the students might learn differently, but they outperform some of their traditional college campus peers.
“The thing that I’m hearing over and over from professors is that they actually have to overprepare because the students read so much more than the traditional student and give so much more in the discussion in the classroom, that they find themselves having to prepare more to get through the 16 weeks of course work than they would on the traditional campus,” he said.
Despite Hudson Link’s success, the coronavirus outbreak has hurt its ability to raise money and finish the current school year. The annual fundraising dinner that is usually held in Manhattan, has been canceled for this year.
“I will say the very first thing is we’re not in prison,” Pica said. “They’ve locked out all non-essential staff, which includes professors.
“We are just trying to figure out how to keep our doors open and survive this pandemic and be there for the students when we’re allowed back in.”
Pica knows that Hudson Link is more than just a degree, it’s also a community.
“Now we’re growing into other avenues including re-entry, housing, support upon the outside,” he said. “Eighty-six percent of the students end up in the social services field. So case workers, social workers, counselors. Also, 34 percent of the students have gone onto graduate work, like me.”
For more information about the Hudson Link for Higher Education program, visit www.hudsonlink.org.