A Life Turned Around Leads to a Lifetime of Helping Inmates

Sean Pica congratulates graduating student who delivered valedictory speech at Sing Sing. Photo: Hudson Link

Hudson Link is a remarkable education
program for the incarcerated

Hudson Link, a remarkable, Ossining-based education program for the incarcerated, needs your help

The turning point for Sean Pica, serving a 24-year-sentence for manslaughter which saw him transferred through nine different New York prisons, came in 1988, when one of the officers invited him to speak to a group of high school students visiting Great Meadow Correctional Facility, New York, as part of the (YAP) Youth Assistance Program.

Convicted at age 16 for a crime he committed to help a friend, Sean was three years into his sentence at that stage – a 19-year-old with decades of imprisonment stretching ahead of him, and who didn’t expect to survive to 21. When the prison staff asked him to talk to the young visitors, he was confused. “Why would I do that when I couldn’t even help myself?” But he was persuaded that his age and his impact could be influential. And it was – not least on Sean himself.

Inside prison, Sean started
studying with Skidmore College

Up till that point Pica, who describes himself as a naïve youth, had felt valueless, but the invitation to take a role gave him self-confidence and the ability to seek a new direction. He started thinking about a college degree. “I could care less about college,” he says of his old self. “There was no indication college would actually help me. But it was something I could physically give to my parents.”

Until 1994, many prisons had college programs. At Great Meadow, Sean started studying with Skidmore University and the University Without Walls Program (UWW).

But then came the revocation of Pell Grant funding for “any individual who is incarcerated in any federal or state penal institution” and the elimination of college degree programs at all New York State prisons.

Sean became a formative
member of Hudson Link

His studies ceased, but later that year he was moved to Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, where a conversation was beginning about bringing college back. Sean was invited into that conversation, and so became a formative member of Hudson Link, an organization which “provides college education, life skills, and reentry support to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women.”

Sean was accepted into the program, was in their first graduating class, then helped run the program while still incarcerated, and now, after his release, is its Executive Director.

“It began with a group of older guys who had degrees, talking about what if we bring college back,” Sean recalls. That core group grew, adding college educators, community leaders, volunteers and supporters, and in 1998 Hudson Link was born.

Funds were raised and Nyack College offered a degree course. When 16 of Sing Sing’s inmates were invited to participate, Sean was one, emerging with a BA in organizational management in 2001. As he now admits, Hudson Link, “saved my life.”

 Now with 640 students,
the program has grown 10-fold

Released in 2002, Sean started volunteering at Hudson Link, became a board member, then its first full-time director. At this point there were only 66 students in the program, one college partner and no staff. Now there are 640 students, 10 college partners, and a $2 million budget, all this without receiving any state or federal funding.

Sean is reluctant to take the credit for Hudson Link’s achievements. “There was no part of witnessing this growth when I was alone. I just surrounded myself with a ton of amazingly smart people,” he comments. But he is the engine and face of the organization, and has created a program that is exceptional – it is now the only accredited, degree-granting college program in a prison run by formerly incarcerated people. “

By creating a college program in the prison system that actually has folks who went through it, who then go back to run it – it’s way more than just an academic program. It’s all about self-esteem, and role models, and positive peer pressure, and the future – so much more than a college degree.”

Sean is also on the board of the Sing Sing Prison Museum: “Anything we can do to capture the history of the prison, good and bad, should be done,” he asserts.

New Beginnings renovates abandoned homes,
using formerly incarcerated men and women

For the future, his plan is to “go deeper. I don’t just want to deliver college. I want full wrap-around services. We’re now doing housing, alumnae gatherings, networking dinners, preparation and re-entry planning for the folks getting ready to come home. We’re meeting them at the gate and walking them back to the community in a way that’s thoughtful and has a plan in place.”

Hudson Link also launched a new construction initiative in Ossining some 18 months ago, called New Beginnings, renovating abandoned homes using formerly incarcerated men and women. “The first one is finished, the doors are open and five of our students are living there,” Sean said. “The second one – dedicated to women – has already been demolished and we are now awaiting its building permit so we can put it back together.”

But, as with so many local enterprises, Covid-19 has thrown a massive spanner in Hudson Link’s works, bringing into doubt this year’s graduations. The single annual fundraiser, a dinner planned for early May, has had to be canceled. “We need everyone’s help to rebound from something like this,” Sean says.

For readers who feel they would like to assist this extraordinary nonprofit funded entirely by donations, Hudson Link’s contact address is: info@hudsonlink.org

 

 

 

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About the Author: Elsbeth Lindner