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Graduating at Sing Sing: College offers inmates a chance at reform

Erin Tennant

Denis Martinez, right, graduates as class valedictorian from maximum-security prison Sing Sing's college program.

Editor's note: A correction has been made to this story.

NEW YORK -- Denis Martinez was a bright young man of 19 with a short fuse and a strong streak of machismo when he shot his victim twice with a revolver after an argument one summer night in The Bronx in 2004.

His victim,  Rodolfo Checo, was seriously wounded and became paralyzed from the waist down. Martinez paid the price for his impulsive violence, landing in New York’s notorious Sing Sing maximum-security prison after being convicted of first-degree assault and being sentenced to 13 years behind bars.

Having seen his hopes and dreams evaporate in an instant, Martinez decided he needed to change and set his mind on college. He soon discovered that he didn’t need to wait until he had served his time. He just enrolled at Sing Sing.

“After you realize you have all this time, you think: 'How can I make my time count?’” Martinez said. “Am I going to leave this place the same person as I went in?”

On Wednesday night, Martinez took his first step toward rebuilding his life, graduating as class valedictorian with a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science after a grueling 4½ years of study.

“One of the only things available to me is my books,” Martinez, now 27, told msnbc.com. “I don’t have anything you could call a social life, so I could give this degree my all.”

Martinez was one of 20 inmate graduates who donned academic gowns and paraded single-file into the  large visitors room as the Sing Sing jazz band played  “Pomp and Circumstance” and the audience of 300-plus family, friends and prison officials stood up from their plastic chairs and applauded.

Sing Sing’s college program currently has enrolled 84 inmates out of a prison population of about 1,700. The program is organized and funded by Hudson Link, a nonprofit set up a few years after state and federal funding for higher education in prisons stopped. It runs programs at four correctional facilities in New York, hiring professors from New York’s Mercy College to teach the students at Sing Sing. 

While the statewide recidivism rate among offenders is 40 percent, not one of the 81 Hudson Link graduates who have been released from prison has been convicted of a crime, according to CEO Sean Pica. (A further 179 graduates are still incarcerated).

To graduate, Martinez and his classmates attended four two-hour evening classes each week inside the prison’s education building per semester. They had access to donated academic journals and magazines, textbooks and 20 computer terminals, two of which have servers with encyclopedias. Internet access is banned.

Martinez said he also studied each day inside his single-bunk cell, with its toilet and basin and window partly overlooking the Hudson River.

Martinez said that he never lacked academic ability and obtained his GED when he was 17. But he said he was “never good at school discipline -- I wasn’t big on doing homework."

Prison changed that.

 “Once I go outside, the odds are stacked against me in the job market. I’m labeled an ex-con,” he said. “A degree will give me something to show for my time.”

Checo, the man whom Martinez shot in 2004, could not be reached for comment on his attacker’s achievement.

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But Dan Levey, executive director of the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children, said he wished victims were given the same attention and opportunities as Martinez has had.

"It's a shame that family members and survivors of homicide don't have the same opportunities. We would love a non-profit organization to come forward and pay for college degrees for survivors or the family members left behind because a bread winner was murdered. I hope the general public understands the plight of victims as well."

Across New York, 1,220 prisoners are enrolled in college programs operated by various privately funded colleges, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Corrections said.

The department’s commissioner, Brian Fischer, told Wednesday night’s graduation audience that education was the “key to re-entry” for inmates rejoining society. 

“Our goal has been to get every inmate at least a high school diploma,” he told msnbc.com. “Once we started to get people educated, they began to ask us: 'Why can’t I get a college education?’”

“It’s not just about book learning. It’s about acquiring self-awareness, by studying topics like psychology and philosophy and logic."

At Sing Sing, inmates have to score well enough on an English and math test to earn a place in the college program.

Mercy College Professor Susan Wiener said her inmate students sometimes struggle with writing skills more than her regular students, but they also tend to be more motivated.

“They really feel proud to be able to do this,” said Wiener. “They’ve put their families through a tough time by being incarcerated. Graduation is the day their families get to come and be proud of them instead.”

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