The graduates in caps and gowns wore black. The prison guards wore blue. The view of the Hudson was dazzling save for the razor wire coiled at the top of the chain-link fence outside.
It was graduation night at Sing Sing, and perhaps 400 people were in attendance. There were the new graduates — almost all of the 32 inmates getting their bachelor of science and associate’s diplomas — as well as many of the 155 past graduates who were still in prison and some others who had come back for a night.
There were beaming family members and friends. And then there were Harry Belafonte, Warren Buffett and his sister Doris Buffett, a regular donor to Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, which organizes and supports the college program at Sing Sing and two other prisons.
If graduation season is about hope and new horizons, if all of us have a shot at redemption, if a college degree is about more than the decal on the rear window, it was one heck of a graduation Wednesday night at the maximum security prison 35 miles north of Midtown Manhattan.
“Prison is the place where faith is tested,” said the commencement speaker, Felipe Luciano, the poet, journalist and advocate for Latino and African-American issues, who had served time in prison for manslaughter. “You are here because you were there. But if you pass this, you are good to go.”
And when he said the men of the class of the 2010, “educated, whole and courageous,” were candidates for a new Peace Corps of men who knew the streets, knew the prisons and knew themselves, there was no reason to think he was wrong.
“I’m not a do-gooder; I’m not flaky — I believe in this because it works,” Ms. Buffett said. “No one can leave here unconvinced.”
Among those convinced was Mr. Buffett, who drove up to Sing Sing after testifying before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. He visited the cellblocks, attended the graduation, mingled with graduates and their families and posed for pictures.
“I’ve been to lots of graduation exercises, and almost every time, after a half-hour you start to feel your eyes closing,” he said. “This one I was there for four hours, and it was all fascinating.”
In one of our periodic get-tough spasms in the 1990s, the federal and state governments forbade giving government education grants to convicted felons, in effect killing off hundreds of programs providing education to prison inmates. One response was Hudson Link, established in 1998 to restore the classes with private funding. It began offering courses at Sing Sing in June 2000 with 22 students taught by Nyack College faculty. Since then, the program has been taught by professors from Mercy College, offering four-year programs leading to a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science.
So far, there have been 196 graduates. An additional 107 inmates are currently enrolled. There’s a 2.5-year waiting list. Of the 196 graduates, 41 have been released. Not one has returned to prison. Nationally, about 60 percent of inmates released from prison come back.
Inmates, who make perhaps $12 to $15 every two weeks working at the prison, pay $10 per semester, which comes from money they could use for cigarettes or candy at the prison commissary. Classes are held at night, Mondays through Thursdays, while the other prisoners use that time for recreation. The students have no Internet access, and return to read and study in their 6-foot-by-9-foot cells.
Despite conditions seemingly unconducive to higher learning, teachers say the inmates are remarkable students, curious, focused, hungry to learn.
“These men are extremely motivated,” said Jo Ann Skousen, an English professor. “They’re always in class on time, always prepared. If I assign one act of a play, they’ll have read the whole thing.”
Most are in for murder, serving sentences measured in decades. Like the graduating class speaker, Chris Payton, his words full of recognition of the irrevocable hurt he had caused to his victim and to his family, graduates reflected stark acceptance of what they had done wrong and gratitude for the transformative experience in a place where hope often goes to die.
“You can become roadkill here,” said Rashan Smalls, a 2009 graduate. “If you don’t believe you have options, you can’t move forward. But this program is all about providing hope. It’s given me a new life.”
It was almost 9. “I need all of the inmates to report to the rear of the room,” a guard called out. The guests were ushered out one by one through the vaultlike steel door and metal detector into the sticky night. The graduates, hope pushing out despair for a night, headed back to the cavernous cellblock, the noise and the stink, back to Sing Sing.