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Mastering the Art of Black Male Prisoner Education

Mastering the Art of Black Male Prisoner Education

In early 1998, I received an invitation from the Rev. George “Bill” Webber of the New York Theological Seminary to speak at Sing Sing prison, the infamous correctional facility only 40 miles north of New York City. The lecture was part of a master’s degree program that Webber had initiated back in 1982. My visit that May was one of the most moving and powerful experiences of my life. Several weeks ago, when Bill asked me to give lectures to this year’s class in the NYTS master’s program, I was eager to return.
Nothing you have seen or have experienced can prepare you for the reality of Sing Sing prison. The prison itself seems literally carved out of the side of a massive cliff that stands just above the Hudson River.As you walk through the prison, you go down a series of hallways, separated by small containments, which have two sets of steel bars on either side, secured by a prison guard. Only one set of doors opens at a time. The guard must lock and secure the first door before you’re permitted to walk through the second door.
At the end of one hallway is Cell Block B. At one time, the guards informed me with considerable pride, Cell Block B was the largest incarceration area of its kind in the world. Less than 20 years ago, the prisoners of Cell Block B somehow managed to overwhelm their guards, protesting inhumane conditions. For several days, 17 correctional officers were held as hostages. But in the end, the prisoners recognized that escape was impossible, and that this act of resistance was more symbolic than anything else. To demand to be treated as a human being in an inhumane environment is to be a revolutionary.
I was taken to the rear sections of Sing Sing, which consist of religious quarters and chapels of different denominations. In a small classroom located there, the NYTS program meets five days a week. About 14 to 16 men are admitted into the program every year, with a waiting list of one or more years. Inmates at various correctional facilities throughout New York State are chosen, and are permitted to transfer to Sing Sing to participate in the master’s program.
It was in this small prison classroom that I met the class of 1999. There was Louis, a 29-year-old man of Puerto Rican descent who already had spent 12 years of his brief life inside penal institutions. There was Kevin, a middle-aged African American man, articulate and serious, who had been in Sing Sing for 19 years and who was now actively involved in AIDS awareness and anti-violence programs within the inmate population. There was “Doc,” a 13-year prisoner who planned to be a counselor; Paul, a 17-year inmate interested in working with teenagers and young adults after his release; and Felipe, a prisoner for 19 years who was preparing himself for the ministry.
The NYTS program is designed to prepare these men for community service. There is a rigorous academic program, where lectures and classroom discussions are held three hours a day, five days a week. Forty-two credit hours must be taken to complete the degree. Inmates are also required to perform an additional 15 hours of field service within the prison, which can range from working in the AIDS ward to tutoring other prisoners. Since the program was established, more than 200 men have graduated with master’s degrees. Only 5 percent of those inmates who have completed the program and were released were later returned to prison, compared to a repeat offender rate in New York state of 42 percent.
The NYTS program is exceptional, in part, because so few educational programs of its type exist in U.S. prisons. In 1995, only one-third of all prisons provided college coursework, and fewer than one in four prisoners was enrolled in some kind of educational or tutorial program behind bars. There are fewer than 11,000 paid teachers who are employed by penal institutions, or about one teacher per 93 prisoners.
Last year, I thought that the Black men I had met in Sing Sing prison were among the “freest” people I knew. I feel more strongly about this than ever before. Freedom is a struggle that begins in one’s mind. These African American men behind bars challenge themselves daily to live as free human beings. Their courage should inspire us to do the same.                                                                    

— Marable, a professor of  history and political science , is the director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University. This column was reprinted from Along the Color Line.

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