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Hundreds of inmates are earning free college degrees from behind bars getting another shot at life

Founded in 1998, the Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison has helped hundreds of men and women earn college degrees from behind bars to date

Hundreds of inmates are earning free college degrees from behind bars getting another shot at life
Cover Image Source: Facebook/Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison

In September 1994, President Bill Clinton signed into law the controversial Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in an attempt to curb the rapidly rising crime rates in the United States at the time. Including a "three strikes" mandatory life sentence for repeat offenders, money to hire 100,000 new police officers, $9.7 billion in funding for prisons, and expansion of death penalty-eligible offenses, the crime-control bill was later praised by Clinton for reportedly causing "a 25-year low in crime, a 33-year low in the murder rate." However, critics refuse to accept this claim, further denouncing the bill for decimating communities of color and accelerating mass incarceration in the country.


This criticism is strengthened by the undeniable heavy blow the bill landed on communities of color and former inmates returning to society by stripping all Pell Grant funding for college education for prisoners. This particular move proved to be a rather foolish as studies in recent years have shown that prison education programs drastically reduce recidivism rates. While the government is yet to repeal this ban, one non-profit has been tirelessly working to transform the lives of New York state inmates through education for the past two decades. Founded in 1998, the Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison has helped hundreds of men and women earn college degrees from behind bars to date.


According to the non-profit degree-granting program, "at a cost of $60,000 per year to incarcerate a single person compared with $5,000 in annual tuition fees to educate them, Hudson Link’s programs have saved New York State taxpayers over $21 million per year." By providing college education, life skills, and reentry support to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women, Hudson Link aims to have a positive impact on not just their students, but also the families and communities the inmates return to upon release.


Having awarded over 700 degrees through eight colleges and five correctional facilities, Hudson Link has seen astonishing long-term results for its efforts in the form of reduced rates of recidivism, incarceration, and poverty. "Hudson Link’s astonishingly low recidivism rate of less than 2% – compared to over 67% nationwide – is proof that the transformative power of education is far more cost-effective than prison. Our graduates successfully rejoin their families and communities, obtaining meaningful employment and living healthy, productive lives," the non-profit states.


With the nationally recognized expert on prison education, Sean Pica, serving as executive director, Hudson Link grew from a 65-student college program operating inside one prison to over 600 students currently enrolled in its programs at five New York state correctional facilities. As one of the most notable success stories of the non-profit himself, Pica credits the program for making him who he is today. "For me to be part of the program that really gave me a second chance at life is amazing," he told PEOPLE. Today, with over 50 percent of its staff consisting of formerly incarcerated individuals, Hudson Link is "the only 501(c)3 non-profit in the US run by formerly incarcerated individuals to provide college degree-granting programs inside prisons."


The non-profit offers a range of programs to inmates, including an intensive one-year, six-course college preparatory program, a college completion program to help students who have been released from prison prior to finishing school fulfill their degree requirements, and extensive alumni services to ensure a successful transition to life after incarceration. However, at the core of Hudson Link's endeavors is its prestigious college program which was formed in collaboration with accredited institutions like Columbia University, Columbia-Greene Community College, Marymount Manhattan College, Mercy College, St. Thomas Aquinas College, SUNY Sullivan, Ulster Community College, and Vassar College.


The Hudson Link portfolio now boasts of numerous inspiring success stories with its alumni forever grateful to Pica and the organization for ushering them into new and improved lives. Alexandra, a Hudson Link alumnus who is now a criminal justice and anti-poverty reform advocate, said, "It’s about changing the legacy. I can’t do anything for anyone else unless I do for myself. I knew I couldn’t be an example for my daughter unless I changed. And a lot of the inspiration for pursuing my education came from Hudson Link." Speaking to Freethink, Pica pointed out that a lot of US prisons were built on an effort of punishment. "But when you punish somebody, there's got to be something about rehabilitation and second chances, and that's what we're doing in these prisons," he said.


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