Melissa Harris-Perry | November 18, 2012
>>> we're going to shift gears from discussing the worst paradoxes and problems of our prison system to highlighting some of the possible solutions starting with individual inmates themselves. meet shawn picka, he's executive director at the hudson link for higher education . his organization provides a college education , life skills and re-entry support to incarcerated men and women in four new york state correctional facilities . the national rate of recidivism within three years of an inmate's release is more than 40%. for the 260 hudson link graduates, that number is zero. that includes shawn . he's not only the executive director, he's also an alum.
>> when i was 16 years old, i got into trouble, i found myself serving an 8 to 20-year sfens sentence. i spent 16 years in maximum security prisons. so many of the men i was around were returning to prison in the first year, 1 months. i thought how am i going to be different. i remember vividly sitting in the correctional facility as a teenager thinking what is my life going to look like. i'm serving a 24-year sentence. i never graduated high school . i feel like i failed everything. i feel like i failed in so many ways. one of the officers came to my cell and he said to me, would you consider helping some of the other men here learn to read and write. i said how am i going to do that? he said shawn , you're the most educated guy around and i had only made it to the ninth grade. so there was this point where i realized i had a chance to possibly not be such a failure and use what i had to help others and it was really where my educational journey began. after 16 years in prison, i got my ged programming. i got my two-year, four-year and graduate work during that time. and i realized right away when i was released in 2002 after 16 years in prison, that the only thing i did have was that college education . and it was the only thing i needed.
>> i have a mercy college i.d. now.
>> slolife is about progression. i used to see it in the men part of the hudson mercy link college program and i said i can do that. they had a glow about them. you see this transformation and you want that.
>> there's this growth of a person and a student that's happening at the same time intertwieng. almost every one of the men and women that have been through the program, end up in the social services field. what we started here in the prisons is reaching back to the community .
>> i'm a firm believer in the transformative power in education . someone extended us an opportunity. someone opened their checkbook, someone opened their bank account and said that my life was worth living. that education can help the greater community .
>> when i was released, i kept thinking that no one in my community is going to be able to forget the fact that i was in prison for nearly two decades. that would be the piece at the forefront of every conversation i had. in reality, people are for dpifg and education levels every playing field .
>> joining our panel is executive director of hudson link shawn pica.
>> thank you for having us.
>> education , tell me how it's so leveling for the former incarcerated?
>> statistically, research proven, we know firsthand that the higher the level of education that the men and receive incarcerated. the lower the late of recidivism once released. if that's the one thing we look at, we know also impacts the community . we have to stop concentrating on the one person getting the education and think about the community effect as well.
>> the notion of cost of community that often gets lost in our taste for incarceration in which it impact children and spouses and mothers and sort of even just the drive that people make in order to visit their loved ones. tell me how this -- if those are the costs, how is it that an educated formerly incarcerated person is a contribution back.
>> i think there's a large level of guilt that all men and women have when they're incarcerated. they take their whole family to prison in one way or another. to come back and come back as a helper, they're really good at it. they fit into the social service agencies in new york city . they're really benefit back to the community and they're also a financial benefit to the community . they once hurt, they come back as helpers now.
>> it's interesting, glenn, you were saying earlier you received a college education while in prison.
>> sure. i received a two-year liberal arts degree in prison. it probably cost about $12,000 a year through private donations. think of that in terms of the payoff. essential essentially, it's become the repository for -- the idea of providing education to people in prison should be a no brainer if you will. what happens is it's ate win-win. it's a win for the individual who earns a degree and life outlook has changed and they have the tools to navigate the labor market and so on. even for the correctional facility . when you have robust programming inside of prisons, people in prison tend to behave. not only do people go to college, but they end up helping other folks to get geds. they become helpers in the facility before they hit the outside and they're free. once they're free, think about it. they pay fines, fees, restitution, child support , all the things that we really want people doing the productive things.
>> it's one of the things that was startling to me as i was doing the research around solitary. was not only that people often are physically put in these spaces but so frequently kept from having any reading materials. i just -- that seems like such a level of cruel and unusual punishment . when we see how exquisitely important education is, it feels as though it's counterproductive to what we're doing.
>> of course. at northern, like in other super max prisons across the country, there are no educational programs at all. so we have the man we interviewed in our film released to a random street with no meaningful support system. he desperately wants to be a good father. i want him to meet you. he's facing a tremendous battle continuing to live out the damage from the psychological damage from being in solitary, the stigma of his crime, poor job opportunities. he wants to break the cycle of poverty and crime for himself and his family, but there seem to be no viable opportunities to do so. he has told me. if he commits an offense he goes straight back to northern. he has told me he'll take his life. it is that dire.
>> i want to stay on the issue of education . judge, i want to talk about if the system can move towards -- so it's not just the individual programs but the systematic way of rethinking about education and prison. a lot more when we come