November 16, 2011

Alumnus Explains Advantages of Prisoner Education

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Christian French ’95, chair of an organization that provides prison inmates with a college education, returned to campus Wednesday to screen Zero Percent, a documentary named after the low recidivism rates produced by his program.

French currently chairs the Board of Hudson Link, a program that provides inmates with the opportunity to earn Bachelors and Associates Degrees from local community colleges.

“It is so much more than an education,” French said of the prison education program.  “It’s a way to change lives.”

French came to Cornell to build support for Hudson Link and to forge a new relationship with the Cornell Prison Education Program.

“Our relationship started out as what they could learn from us,” he said. “We are a more mature program, and we know how to navigate the waters of the industry. But, right now, we are looking to form a more formal relationship. There is no reason our programs cannot make a more fluid relationship.”

French first became involved with Hudson Link 10 years ago when he attended the first annual Hudson Link Dinner. French said  that, at the dinner, he was inspired by Sean Pica, the current Director of Hudson Link.

“He really moved me.  I could see the passion.  His story is incredible,” French said.

While serving time in prison for murder, Pica found a new life in the Hudson Link program.  He graduated from the program and, with his college degree, began to work for the program.

While French said the national average for recidivism is near 60 percent, Hudson Link boasts a zero percent recidivism rate: None of the program’s 237 alumni have been incarcerated within three years of their release, he said. The movie’s title is a reference to this figure.

“The zero percent recidivism rate is just amazing,” said Jess Saba ‘14, who attended the screening.  “A lot of people just don’t realize how well education-based rehabilitation works.”

Hudson Link began offering courses in June 2000, two years after federal law ended government funding of college education programs in prisons. Hudson Link initially offered courses to just 22 prisoners in one prison. Since then, the program has expanded into three New York State prisons, grown the size of its student population to 239 and reached an operating budget around $550,000, despite receiving no government funds.

However, Sean Pica, director of Hudson Link, said he fears that too much growth may hurt the program’s quality.

“The bigger we get, the worse we get,” he said.

French said the program could grow successfully if it does so carefully.

“As we expand, we must evaluate whether or not we can maintain that ‘special sauce’ that makes the program work,” he said.  “In each prison, there is a limit to how much we can grow before we lose quality.”

The program’s quality depends on very restrictive application requirements and maintaining discipline within program, according to French.  To gain entrance into the program, inmates must first test well  on a placement exam.  Scoring well, however, only assures admittance to a three-year long waiting list. If the inmate does enroll in the program, he must maintain good standing with the prison.  Any disciplinary violation results in immediate expulsion from the program.

“The Hudson Link program will only have a good name if we don’t offer some bullshit, watered-down“The Hudson Link program will only have a good name if we don’t offer some bullshit, watered-down program,” Pica said.

French explained that over the next five years, the program hopes to expand — but not at the expense of the program’s quality.

”In five years, we hope to be in ten facilities and graduating 500 members annually. ” he said.  ”But we must do our best to preserve quality.”

To French, the program’s overall quality rests on the quality of the degree offered.

“Part of Hudson Link’s responsibility is making sure that its degree is the same exact degree as the local community college,” said French.

Hudson Link employs teachers from local community colleges to teach the very same courses that they teach at the community college to ensure the degree’s quality.

Jessi Paychak ’13, who is going to be a teaching assistant next semester in Cornell Prison Education Program, also had not realized the quality of education-based rehabilitation.

“I hadn’t realized how much importance education has in rehabilitation,” she said.  “The movie got me really excited for next semester.”

Patrick Nowack ’13 will also be a teaching assistant next semester in Cornell Prison Education Program, and, also like Paychak, was amazed by the program’s success.

“The movie clarified the importance of these programs in prisons,” he said. ”It gives prisoners a sense of purpose.””

Original Author: Justin Rouillier