Documentary ‘The University of Sing Sing’ to Premiere March 31 on HBO
via press release:
THE UNIVERSITY OF SING SING,
THE STORY OF INMATES WORKING TOWARD A DIPLOMA AND A
FRESH START THROUGH A TRANSFORMATIVE PROGRAM,
DEBUTS MARCH 31, EXCLUSIVELY ON HBO
“What happens to a dream deferred?” asked Langston Hughes in his classic poem “Harlem.” The question is especially relevant within the walls of the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, where 1,700 men serve lengthy prison sentences, often for violent crimes.
In 1998, five former inmates founded the privately funded Hudson Link for Higher Education, which enables incarcerated men and women to earn a college diploma. Through Hudson Link’s partnership with Mercy College, Sing Sing prisoners are able to receive the same curriculum and diploma as on-campus students, with remarkable results: Hudson Link has a less than 2% recidivism rate among released graduates. The program draws a myriad of supporters, including rapper and actor Ice-T, business magnate Warren Buffet and singer and activist Harry Belafonte.
Revealing the transformation that occurs when inmates receive not only a college diploma but also a chance at redemption and a reason to hope, the inspirational documentary THE UNIVERSITY OF SING SING debuts MONDAY, MARCH 31 (9:45-10:30 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO.
Other HBO playdates: April 2 (12:15 p.m., 4:00 a.m.), 5 (3:00 p.m.), 8 (4:30 p.m.), 13 (9:30 a.m.) and 18 (11:15 a.m.)
HBO2 playdates: April 2 (8:45 p.m.) and 26 (9:00 a.m.)
THE UNIVERSITY OF SING SING debuts immediately following the 9:00 p.m. debut of the Oscar®-nominated documentary “The Last Days of Private Jack Hall,” which shows how the hospice experience can profoundly touch the lives of the incarcerated, both those who are nearing death and those who find redemption in caring for inmate patients.
When Douglas Duncan first encountered Sing Sing he thought, “What did I do to myself? What am I going to do with my life?” Like many men there, he is serving a lengthy sentence, in his case 16 to 24 years for first-degree assault. Although their dreams may be deferred, a college diploma is within reach for some Sing Sing inmates, thanks to the non-profit Hudson Link’s partnership with Mercy College.
English professor Jo Ann Skousen notes that prisoners have “the same classes, same teachers, same syllabus” as Mercy College students on the main campus. The only difference? “Better students,” says Skousen, citing inmates’ preparedness and dedication. Communications professor Steven Witte observes that unlike other college students, who are just trying to get good grades, in Sing Sing “the stakes are very high. They know that for them it could be an opportunity at a life outside of prison.”
In the classrooms of Sing Sing, prisoners including Joel Jimenez, who is 21 years through a 23-year prison term for the murder of a man he thought would kill his brother, reveal their gifts. His Mercy College professor is impressed with his ability “to think outside the box,” while his brother, sister and mother are proud of how much he has accomplished. Even Jimenez’s daughter, who was a toddler at the time of his arrest, is willing to give him a second chance.
Inmate Denis Martinez is a talented visual artist who has been able to incorporate philosophical ideas into his works. Inspired by Descartes’ notion “I think, therefore I am,” Martinez has created a self-portrait that is a testament to the power of prison education, entitled “I think, therefore I am free.”
Even though a college diploma can be a life-changing gift for these men, the effects go beyond their own personal journeys. Sean Pica, a former inmate and current director of Hudson Link, calls the program essential for successful reentry to society after prison. “Do you want them the same way they went in, or worse?” he asks. “Or do you want them changed and thinking about what they’ve done, and educated and looking to make a difference in their lives?”
In the US, 43% of inmates return to prison within three years of release. To date, fewer than 2% of Hudson Link’s graduates released from prison have returned.
On graduation day, which is well-attended by the inmates’ family members, class salutatorian Chris Payton recalls spending his early days in prison, drowning “in an ocean of despair.” But, he believes, “that anchor, Hudson Link, revived me and gave me a second chance at life.” The diploma is more than just a degree. It is a source of hope, a promise of a future and an education that can never be taken away.
THE UNIVERSITY OF SING SING is directed by Tim Skousen; produced by Robert Fernandez and Tim Skousen; executive produced by Dan Levinson; co-produced by Karol Zeno; edited by Geof Bartz, Mitch Gerbus and Tim Skousen; director of photography, Ed Stephenson. For HBO: supervising producer, Jacqueline Glover; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.