Some of the college graduates donning their caps and gowns this spring are celebrating in an unlikely place:  behind prison walls. Open Campus spoke with four graduates of college programs in New York State prisons. They are all part of programs run in partnership with Hudson Link, a nonprofit that works with colleges and universities around the state to offer associate’s and bachelor’s degrees inside. In May and June, 156 men and women graduated from the program’s nine college partners. The graduates we spoke to reflected on mentorship, community, and the role of higher education in healing.

These profiles have been edited lightly for clarity. 

Alonzo Miles graduates from Mercy University in June 2024. Babita Patel/Open Campus

“To be a part of something like that, you have to take notice.”

Alonzo Miles, associate’s of science, Mercy University

I got a story. I was actually the next door neighbor to the two guys that escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility [in Dannemora, New York]. I was in cell 624, and the two guys that escaped were in 623, and 622. They sent me to the SHU (Secure Housing Unit) for 30 days for ‘security reasons’ during the search for them, even though I had no infraction or anything. 

But actually, I needed to go through it. I had already decided at Clinton that I needed to do something different, but I didn’t really know how to change. I assumed that as long as I’m not getting in trouble, as long as I’m not fighting, I’m doing the right thing. But you’re not moving forward, right?

That time in the SHU allowed me to be able to identify the opportunities that was in front of me and the help offered by the people around me. That includes staff. Because even though prison is prison, I’m not taking that away from that, but the staff encouraged us. 

When I got here to Sing Sing in 2015, they used to do the graduation at night. So this guy, he’s a sergeant now, but he used to be the block officer in command. He got on the mic when everybody was coming back from graduation, and he made everybody in the entire block stand up and clap for the men who graduated. And you heard the whole block erupt when the guys came in. To be a part of something like that, you have to take notice. 

Coming here to Sing Sing and being exposed to these different therapeutic programs, they steered me towards the self investigation for me to start to find out and understand who I am and why I am here. And then the education part of it helped me to start correlating the difference between how I feel and how I think. 

I never in a million years would have believed that I would be receiving a degree, in anything really. That’s not really what I thought I would be about. I was really intimidated by education. I didn’t see no future for me in education, but now being a part of it, and having my daughters here today and being proud of me, really being encouraged by my professors, by my fellow students, as well as my family, I know the future holds more education for me.

Steve Schiovone (left) earns an associate’s degree from Mercy University in June 2024. Babita Patel/Open Campus

“They’re not knuckleheads anymore. They’re college students.”

Steve Schiovone, associate’s of science, Mercy University

I dropped out of high school. I got my GED when I was in the street because I wanted to join the Marines and they wouldn’t take me with no diploma. I joined the Marines, I came home, I did some menial jobs, I got arrested. 

And then to think that I would get my college degree in prison? That made no sense. Why would I get it in prison if I didn’t want to do it in the street? And then friends pushed me. They were like, ‘Come on, try it, you might like it.’ I took one pre-college class. I enjoyed it. Now, I got my associates. 

When I get home, I want to give back. I want to help the guys behind me, the knuckleheads, as they call them. I want to help them get ahead. 

Security doesn’t make this easy. Everything’s an issue, trying to get this book, trying to get that resource. But when you have people that want to see you succeed, they don’t let that stop them. Professor Wells, when I was in pre-college, would come in on Friday to tutor us. I was the only one that showed up. And she still came every Friday. And I felt bad. I feel like I wasted her Fridays. She goes, “if this is going to help you. I don’t care. I will come.” And she came every Friday for almost four months to help me get caught up and then get ahead. It’s an awesome feeling that you’re not alone. 

You have to be in the system for a while to realize what you want to do, because when you first get in, you have to get settled. You have to figure out how everything moves. Then you have to hope that you associate with people that are doing the right thing, and not other knuckleheads, because a knucklehead with other knuckleheads is a problem: ‘I don’t want my friends laughing at me. I don’t want you thinking I’m a weirdo because I’m going to school.’

But once you get them in and you surround them with good people, they start cleaning up. And they’re not knuckleheads anymore. They’re college students. 

Salahuddin Townsley graduates from Mercy University in June 2024. Babita Patel/Open Campus

“You’re breaking down and rebuilding yourself as a human being.”

Salahuddin Townsley, associate’s of science, Mercy University

I was just telling somebody my educational journey is 30 years in the making. That’s because when I came to prison in 1995 at 19 years old, they actually stopped college after the crime bill.

My family life was really rough back and coming out of high school, I didn’t really have any guidance. I knew I wanted to go to college, but exactly what and where I wasn’t 100% sure about. I went to an alternative high school. Part of my struggles was getting in trouble, although I excelled academically.

It wasn’t until I got to Sullivan Correctional Facility in 2018 that I was able to get into the Hudson Link program there with St. Aquinas. But I was there for a very short period, like four and a half months, and they transferred me over here to Sing Sing. I thought I would go right into the college program here, since it’s Hudson Link, but it took about a year before I could get in, and then COVID hit. 

The beauty of receiving the degree that we do here at Mercy University is that it’s in psychology and behavioral studies. Two classes I took dealt with child psychology. One was children at risk, dealing with childhood trauma, and another one was social factors and psychopathology, and both were with Professor Downey from Columbia University. 

Looking at these classes and what you learn in them, being able to apply them to yourself, it’s extremely therapeutic. Not only are you learning to get your degree, you’re breaking down and rebuilding yourself as a human being. You have to ask yourself, what led to a person to do what they did that led to their incarceration? If you can’t answer that question, you can’t resolve and deal with that issue. Although they may get their degree, which is helpful, that soul wound is still there.

I think that prison education provides an opportunity for us to demonstrate our humanity. We are subject to the same vulnerabilities, idiosyncrasies and frailties that everyone else is. We’re healing. They say hurt people hurt people, and that is so true. But there comes a point in time where sometimes the person realizes the hurt they caused, and they try to heal themselves and help others heal as well.

Jennifer Martinez graduates from Marymount Manhattan College in June 2024. Angela James Photo for Hudson Link

“We’re all going to leave here as graduates.”

Jennifer Martinez, bachelor of arts,  Marymount Manhattan College

This is an excerpt of Martinez’ commencement speech as valedictorian at Taconic Correctional Facility, one of three prisons for women in New York state. 

I arrived at Taconic in the fall of 2021 and the harsh reality of being in prison was overwhelming. I came to those gates with a terrible guilt for having made choices that not only changed the trajectory of my life, but it impacted everyone that I love. I often thought about the implications of having added ‘convicted felon’ to my list of identifiers. I was sentenced to serve five-and-a-half years, and I didn’t know how I would survive this experience….I would spend nights asking myself, ‘What am I going to do?’ 

And for months, I had no answer to that question. 

I thought coming to prison was the absolute worst thing that could have happened to me. Then, just 90 days after arriving at Taconic, I received the news that my father had passed away. 

The evening after receiving that news I called my brother to let him know, and as he comforted me through my grief, an officer passed out the mail…Later that night, sitting alone in my cell, I opened the letter, and it was my notice that I had been accepted into the college program. 

Although I may not have realized it then, I now know that receiving that letter was my way of knowing that everything would be okay. From that moment on, I started to balance two identities, that of an incarcerated individual and that of a student. 

And I wholeheartedly delved into my student identity. I could have remained consumed with thoughts of, ‘How am I going to survive prison?’ But instead, I chose to focus on, ‘how am I going to pass this class? How am I going to earn my degree? How am I going to live my life after release’? How am I going to be the best version of myself?’

To my fellow graduates, at some point each of us lost our freedom, and along this educational journey, we each discovered the freedom that truly matters, and that’s the freedom of our minds. And in the next few months, all seven of us will be leaving Taconic. We’re all going to leave here as graduates.

This story is co-published with Teen Vogue.

Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.