After serving 16 years in New York state prisons as a juvenile, Sean Pica has had a fundamental role in bringing college education to prisoners nationwide.
For the past 10 years, Pica has been the executive director of New York’s Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison. He also serves on the board of the newly formed Alliance for Higher Education in Prison, which includes Jody Lewen, executive director of the Prison University Project (PUP) at San Quentin.
“According to a RAND analysis, every $1 invested in such [inmate] education generates at least $4 in economic return,” reports Fast Company.
“The state typically spends $71,000 a year to house an inmate. It costs about $5,000 total to help put one [incarcerated] student through community college”, reports Fast Company.
The Alliance is about giving access to higher learning to prisoners across the country,” Pica said, “and our goal is to grow an understanding of the power of education.”
In order to achieve its goal, the Alliance plans to join prison education programs throughout the nation. Its board is currently composed of 10 members from 10 states, and it’s anticipated that more will join.
Pica was the keynote speaker at the PUP graduation last year. He plans to return for this year’s ceremony as well.
“Hudson Link and PUP have a mutually supportive relationship,” Lewen said. “They have inspirational leadership and do wonderful work around re-entry.”
Lila McDowell, Hudson Link’s new development director, recently visited San Quentin and sat in on some PUP classes.
Just as PUP was founded in the infamous San Quentin State Prison, Hudson Link was formed in the historic Sing Sing State Prison in New York in 1998. To date, Hudson Link has awarded 478 Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees in liberal arts and behavioral science.
“It was amazing to see the culture of openness at San Quentin,” Pica said. “When I talked to the men, they were not only concerned about getting the word out about the good work they were doing in their lives, but how it can impact other students nationally.”
“It hurts that some people only focus on your past…”
Pica’s prison experience allows him to be a voice for the presently and formerly incarcerated. However, from time to time he is still confronted by the stigma of his past.
“It’s about balance,” Pica said. “It hurts that some people only focus on your past, but I’m proud of the people who support me. It’s just a reminder that we were in prison. I got a second chance but a lot of the men who have impacted my life will never come home, and that keeps me going.”
Pica went to prison at the age of 16 for homicide. He found his calling through education, and was the first in his family to get a degree. He later became one of the founding members of Hudson Link.
Since becoming director, he has expanded the program from 60 students attending Nyack College at Sing Sing to more than 510 students attending college programs in six different New York state prisons.
He established the Alumni Services Program, which provides re-entry services such as job readiness skills, job search assistance, interview attire, and computer training. It also provides mentoring and internship opportunities.
More than half of the Hudson Link staff members are formerly incarcerated men and women. Some are mentors, tutors and exam proctors, but all of the program’s professors are volunteers.
Its Alumni Youth Assistance Program arranges for formerly incarcerated presenters to speak with middle and high school students about choices and the consequences of criminal behavior.
The students are shown a Hudson Link documentary called “Zero Percent” about breaking the cycle of incarceration.
Pica is an example of rehabilitation and perseverance for educating the incarcerated population. He said that he might be the only formerly incarcerated person to manage a prison college program, but he is confident that he won’t be the last.
Films that feature the Hudson Link program are “First Degree” and “The University of Sing Sing,” an HBO documentary. Both films showed the power of education within prison.
Pica said that education is not just a gift for the student, “It’s a gift for the men and women who are going back to their families. Back to their communities and back to the world we all live in.”
The Hudson Link program has partnered with Columbia University, Mercy College, Nyack College, Siena College, SUNY Sullivan, and Ulster Community College.