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Hudson Link graduates at Green Haven Correctional Facility
Photo by Angela James Photography, courtesy of Hudson Link

On May 10, Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, in partnership with Columbia-Greene Community College, celebrated its first graduation ceremony here at Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, New York.

Jose C. Rodriguez, the valedictorian, and fellow graduates Vittorio Campano, Michael Chicherchia, Akil Folborg, Dante Major, James McCoy and William Muller made up the graduating class of 2023.

Rodriguez’s valedictorian speech incorporated the biblical story of David and Goliath. Casting himself as both characters, Jose detailed the internal battle he waged to conquer the impetuous and bullying Goliath of his past self. He spoke passionately about the infinite reservoir of ability and good residing in us all. His poignant and heartfelt speech brought many to tears. He dedicated his remarks to both his sons, who were in attendance, and his father, who has passed on. 

Columbia-Greene Provost George Timmons conferred the degrees on the recipients, after which attendees sat down to a catered lunch. The event was an opportunity for graduates and their families to positively reframe their loved one’s incarceration, and perhaps restore the hope lost to time and incarceration.

Green Haven hosts two college programs: Bard College and Hudson Link/Columbia-Greene Community College. 

Over the last year, enrollment for both schools has increased significantly. College programming at Green Haven is now in high demand. 

The first semester of Columbia-Greene classes began in January 2022. The current cohort of graduates includes students who accumulated credits prior to their incarceration or in other prison college programs, allowing them to complete their degree requirements during the spring semester. 

The increased number of students attending college represents a paradigm shift in the facility. Persons in GED classes now have something significant to aspire to after achieving their high school equivalence. 

For many people inside, college had not been thought of as an attainable goal, but that’s beginning to change with these programs. A significant number of men are seeking applications after watching their peers attend college and get degrees. 

It is also a big plus as an incentive for good behavior since disciplinary problems can get a resident suspended for a minimum of one semester. A poor disciplinary record also prevents college enrollment.

Hudson Link was created 25 years ago in response to the retributive criminal justice policies that cut state and federal educational TAP (for Tuition Assistance Program) and Pell grants for incarcerated people in New York. Hudson Link stepped into the breach by facilitating college opportunities, both financially and administratively, for thousands of prisoners. 

Hudson Link Executive Director Sean Pica and Program Director Joel Jimenez also spoke at the graduation. Both are formerly incarcerated and articulated their mission: to provide life-changing opportunities for incarcerated people through higher education. Hudson Link claims a 98% success rate — that is, a 2% recidivism rate — for graduates returning to the community.

The midweek graduation was the first major post-COVID event here at Green Haven. Anthony J. Annucci, the acting commissioner of the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, was in attendance before his retirement in June, along with other prison dignitaries. There were a host of other stakeholders in attendance who’ve invested their time and considerable financial support to Hudson Link and its mission, including Rabbi Shira Milgrom who gave the invocation. 

The event was held in the gym, normally a drab, utilitarian space with scuffed walls and minimal natural light. But on this day, it was festooned with balloons, banners and photo backdrops. The atmosphere was charged with anticipation and goodwill. The incarcerated men were groomed and had on their best. The graduates’ visitors milled around with an air of proud expectation. There was a morning breakfast of fruit salad, an assortment of pastries, coffee and tea.

While waiting for the ceremony to begin, I asked Albert “Saali” Santana Jr., a current Hudson Link/Columbia-Greene student, what the opportunity to attend college meant to him. 

“Education has been liberating, stimulating and transformed my character through its inherent rehabilitative components,” Santana said. “To me, the formula is and has always been: Time and education equals rehabilitation.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.