06/27/2013 04:54 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2013

Graduation at Sing Sing State Prison

Every commencement ceremony is a congratulatory event that marks the end of an educational process en route to some particular career. But there is one graduation that is different from all others. It takes place annually at the Sing Sing maximum security prison in Ossining, New York where for the past 31 years the New York Theological Seminary has awarded a Master of Professional Studies degree to candidates serving long-term sentences in various correction facilities round the state. Acceptance in the program implies a willingness even for those in minimum security prisons to transfer to the Sing Sing facility for the one-year course of thirty-six credit hours. In addition to regular class attendance five days a week students are required to do supervised work in the prison as peer counselors, tutors, and assistants to chaplains.

The program is accredited by the Association of Theological Schools which guarantees a standardized curriculum and a qualified faculty. No monies are received from the state which allows the use of class room space within the prison. Full scholarships, books, faculty and administration of the program are provided through the financial support of foundations, churches and friends. The program is authorized by the New York City Department of Corrections in Albany and morally supported by Superintendent Michael Capra and his staff at Sing Sing.

Our nation spends billions of dollars annually for the upkeep of prisons that house the world's largest number of criminal offenders. Clearly, the recidivism rate of over 60 percent implies a failed system in need of serious repair. By contrast, the recidivism rate for graduates of this program is less than ten percent and zero percent during the last five years.

Instead of prisons functioning solely as centers of punishment and retribution many are convinced that rehabilitation through education is the most effective way to reduce crime and benefit the society as a whole. Yet, many others argue that undeserving criminals should not receive any benefits for their wrong-doing. Others still argue that some crimes are so heinous that those who commit them should be incarcerated for life. Reasonable people would agree that each of these arguments has some merit but not enough to justify the maintenance of the status quo. Rather, educational programs aimed at helping others can lead to genuine rehabilitation. Many who have been released from this program are continuing to make notable contributions to our society. Former President George W. Bush acknowledged one such person, Mr. Julio Medina, at his state of the union address January, 2004 for his work as Executive Director of the Exodus Transitional Program and a 1994 graduate of the Sing Sing program.

When graduation day arrives, trustees, administrators, faculty, family members and friends arrive at the prison in the late afternoon. After depositing their personal transferable items into safety boxes, they pass through a security check point, two steel doors with iron bars and enter a large reception room prepared for the ceremony. Everyone is locked in the room for the next few hours under the watchful eyes of prison guards. The graduates are brought from their cells and soon replace their prison uniforms with civilian clothes and academic robes. They then look like all other graduates waiting excitedly to receive their desired diplomas.

As the procession moves slowly from one end of the room to the next accompanied by the familiar tones of traditional graduation music, everyone becomes part of the illusion that they are attending a traditional graduation event. Yet they soon realize that the guests were not allowed to bring cameras to the event. Only the seminary's official photographer is permitted to take a photo of each candidate receiving his degree as a member of his family assists the Dean in placing the academic hood over his head. A copy of that photo will be mailed to the family.

Throughout the ceremony many family members constantly wipe away tears of joy and sadness. After a buffet dinner they depart by cars, trains, and buses for their respective journeys home carrying their family member's degree and hood as permanent memorabilia of the occasion.

Alas, the graduates themselves end the day by returning to their cells intent on being good role models for their incarcerated peers by demonstrating exemplary conduct in the prison community. Invariably they all dream of the day when they will be free to rejoin their families and reclaim their citizenship in the larger society. Until then they will have much time to reflect on the insightful thoughts about restorative justice that they heard from the commencement speaker and former state bar President, Steven Younger, the encouraging words of Superintendent Michael Capra, the charge to responsible leadership from the Director Dr. Edward Hunt, and the perceptive reflections of their class mate, Joseph Rojas. Clearly, no other graduation is like this one.

Peter J. Paris is Professor Emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary.