NYTS Testimony on MPS Program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility
November 29, 2012
Good afternoon. My name is Ron William Walden. I represent New York Theological Seminary, or NYTS. We are grateful to the Committee, to your Chairman Assemblyman Aubry, to Assemblyman Giglio and all the other members, and to your fine staff for the opportunity to speak. I would like to tell you about the Master of Professional Studies degree program at Sing Sing, and then make some observations and policy recommendations.
The Master of Professional Studies, or MPS, is a fully accredited graduate professional degree awarded by New York Theological Seminary after an intensive one-year, 36-credit course of study entirely within the walls of Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining. So far as we know, it is the only accredited master’s degree offered inside any prison in the United States.
It is a post-college degree that prepares its graduates for professional service—service not only in churches and other Christian ministries but also in Muslim and Jewish and Rastifarian and other settings—not only in faith-based programs and organizations, but in secular social-service projects as well—not only in neighborhoods in New York State when our alumni come home, but also and above all in the correctional system while they are still inside.
About New York Theological Seminary
NYTS was founded in 1900 as a non-denominational school training religious leaders in the urban context, with the Bible at the core of the curriculum. During the 1970s the Seminary began to focus more directly on training leaders of urban churches and other communities of faith which have historically been marginalized within the wider society. NYTS today is recognized internationally for its innovative approaches to theological education, its ability to serve culturally and theologically diverse constituencies, and its commitment to training strong leaders of the churches and the community. The Seminary currently offers four graduate degree programs and a non-degree certificate program for approximately 650 students each year, who represent more than 40 denominations, from Pentecostal and Holiness to Presbyterian. NYTS has a strong multi-faith identity and curriculum and trains leaders of Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish and other non-Christian groups. Our student body is among the most diverse in theological education today.
New York City itself is our South Campus. Classes there are offered evenings and weekends. Most students work full-time in ministry or secular vocations, or in both. NYTS provides instruction and even entire degree or certificate programs in Korean, Spanish, and Creole French as well as English. Graduates of the Seminary are highly effective pastors, chaplains, teachers, social workers, non-profit administrators, community organizers, business leaders, and public officials. The NYTS administrative offices are located in The Interchurch Center in New York City. Classes are held in space rented at The Riverside Church and other sites. Library facilities are provided by our neighbors, Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary.
Sing Sing Correctional Facility is our North Campus. The Sing Sing MPS is the Seminary’s only residential program. We are grateful to New York State for providing housing to our students there.
About the Master of Professional Studies degree program
This fall, for the 31st academic year, NYTS has enrolled a class of inmates serving long-term prison sentences in New York State in a degree program leading to the Master of Professional Studies. Each year the Seminary admits up to 15 candidates from DOCCS facilities across the State. Those who are accepted are transferred to Sing Sing (if they are not already housed there), where they undertake a one-year, 36-credit graduate degree program. Candidates are required to submit full applications, including a letter of recommendation from a chaplain in the New York State correctional system. They must have demonstrated promise for leadership, hold an accredited undergraduate college degree, and meet all of the Seminary’s other standards for admission. The MPS degree is offered by a Christian seminary, but NYTS, in keeping with the guidelines of the New York State corrections department and its own academic culture, admits adherents of other religious traditions into the program as well, notably Muslims, as well as those with no commitment to institutional religion. Candidates must have a clean disciplinary record for the previous three years. Many elect to move from medium- or even minimum-security prisons to the maximum-security environment of Sing Sing in order to attend the program.
Once enrolled, candidates attend classes each weekday for three hours. They are also required to work in field education within Sing Sing under the supervision of the NYTS Program Director, the Reverend Professor Edward L. Hunt, PhD.
Dr. Hunt directs our MPS students in their field work as peer counselors, chaplain’s assistants, or tutors in one of the educational, therapeutic or other programs offered at Sing Sing. Classroom instruction is provided by members of the Seminary’s core and adjunct faculty, nearly all of whom hold the PhD or other appropriate terminal degree. The curriculum offers foundational study in the various disciplines of theological education: Hebrew Bible and New Testament, church history, theology, ethics, foundations of ministry, pastoral care and counseling, religious education, as well as a course in program and organization design and management. Finally, there is a community-building component to the degree program—students are taught to be mutually accountable, to work in and foster a community of learning that is committed to the intellectual, moral, and spiritual dimensions of ministry and service.
Candidates must forego regular weekday visits during the year they are in the program in order to meet the requirements for class attendance. They must maintain a grade point average of 3.0 to continue in good standing and graduate. More than 95% of those who are accepted and enrolled complete the degree. A special graduation service is held inside Sing Sing on the evening of the second Wednesday in June each year, with members of the NYTS board of trustees, faculty and administration, candidates’ family members, and other guests in attendance.
The program is an experience of transformation, and its alumni who are still on the inside give evidence of that. Commissioner Fischer has cited the NYTS program as a factor in reducing violence and contributing to the process of rehabilitation in the correctional system. Graduates serve in prisons throughout the State as counselors and group leaders in Alternatives to Violence and other programs, as chaplain assistants, peer counselors, or teachers. A number have created inmate-initiated service projects and programs. Several are teaching college-level courses offered through Hudson Link, a non-profit educational program that grew out of the network of the Seminary’s MPS alumni and offers an accredited college degree in some of the prisons in southeastern New York. Hudson Link is scheduled to offer testimony at this hearing today; its Executive Director is an alumnus of our MPS program.
Other graduates, who have been released, continue transformative work in society outside the prison walls. A substantial number of NYTS alumni who have been released are now working in ministry or social services. Several are leaders in the national re-entry movement, including Julio Medina, Executive Director of Exodus Transitional Community; Eddie Ellis, Executive Director of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions; William Eric Waters, Program Coordinator for the Osborne Association; and the late Dr. Lonnie McLeod, Jr., consultant on re-entry programs to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. A number are serving churches as pastors. Still others continue to serve in effective prison programs, including Sean Pica, Executive Director of Hudson Link, whom I have mentioned; and Imam Salahuddin Muhammad, a chaplain at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon.
As you might expect, the recidivism rate for graduates of the Seminary’s MPS program is exceedingly low—in a 2006 study, the numbers were 11% over the long life of the program and close to zero for those who have been released in the past five years, compared to a 49% recidivism rate generally in New York State during the period studied.
NYTS has been offering the MPS in Sing Sing since 1982. Over the past three decades more than 400 candidates have completed the program and earned their MPS degree.
The social benefits of the MPS program are obvious, in the prisons and in neighborhoods outside. However, the Seminary receives no government funding to support the Sing Sing program. Students in the program pay no tuition or fees. NYTS provides 100% scholarship support, including paying for all fees and all textbooks that students use (and keep following graduation). NYTS has no endowment to support the program. The budget for the program for academic year 2012-2013 is $265,000. Of this amount the Seminary seeks to raise $200,000 in restricted gifts from individuals, churches, and foundations; the remaining support comes from the Seminary’s general operating budget.
Observations and policy recommendations
- Funding of the MPS. The environment for private philanthropy in the past five years has been very difficult. Fund raising of all kinds has suffered from the recession and the decline in the securities markets. Foundation funding and gifts from individual donors are down. These trends have affected our efforts to fund the MPS program. We sense also that interest in prisoner-reentry issues is no longer growing. We are not here today to ask for State funding for the only graduate professional degree program in existence in a U.S. prison. But we do hope that members of the Assembly and their staffs will be our thought partners as we raise money. Stay informed about the MPS program. Follow our progress. Help us to network. Point us to potential partnerships and funding opportunities.
- Integration with other educational and training programs. The integration of the Seminary’s MPS program with the other educational programs you will hear about today is vital to us. We are each engaged in our own aspect of the same enterprise of education and training. The Seminary is well aware of the research showing that favorable recidivism rates are correlated with involvement with a religious community. But favorable rates are even more closely correlated with the level of effective education obtained by the returning citizen. We commend this Committee on Corrections for your attention to education today.
- Funding for college degree programs. For New York Theological Seminary, sustained funding and expansion of baccalaureate programs in the New York State correctional system is particularly important. Most of our MPS students hold bachelor’s degrees earned while they were in prison; college programs in the correctional system provide us with our pool of applicants. We are proud of our association with Commissioner Fischer, who is a national leader in his vision for higher education in corrections. We regard Hudson Link not only as a star in our crown, because of its history with NYTS, but also as an indispensible institutional partner. We hope you will consider its needs for funding favorably, along with the funding needs of all college programs in the State.
- Pell Grants and TAP grants. A related observation: when the opportunity for inmates to receive federal Pell Grants was withdrawn in 1994, it was a national catastrophe. More than 300 college programs packed up and left the prisons almost overnight. The next year inmates lost their eligibility for New York State TAP grants.
- Pell and TAP grants made it possible for New York colleges and universities to be compensated for offering higher education in the correctional system. Now our colleagues in the State, if they wish to address the educational needs of inmates, must scramble for funding in the philanthropic sector, as we do. It is hard to work for free. NYTS urges State leaders, in the legislature and the executive, working with the Federal government if possible, to find ways of making government scholarships and other funding available to college students in prison.
- Computers. If prison programs are to educate and train inmates for a successful return to society, students should have greater access to computers. We understand that security is the paramount consideration in the correctional system, and we are aware that computers are easily misused to compromise security. So we are reluctant to criticize the computer policies of prison administrators, and we understand that it is impossible to provide unlimited internet access, for example. However, we wish to report that it is difficult to provide high-quality education and training without a greater access to digital technology than is now available to us. The MPS students in the NYTS program use stripped-down computers, with no internet or intranet connection, for word processing and other simple tasks. Meanwhile, their peers in New York City use sophisticated computers as indispensible tools for addressing research and other vital educational tasks. Not only a graduate degree program, but also college, GED and vocational programs must provide sophisticated computer literacy if their students are to return to lives successfully integrated into a computerized society and a digital economy. Sensible models for the safe use of computers in prison-based educational and training programs can be found in the correctional systems of other states. We recommend that the New York authorities consider adapting one or more of those models for use in our correctional system.
New York Theological Seminary is pleased to have a role in the collaborative project the Committee is considering today—education and training in the New York correctional system. We are grateful for the opportunity to offer the MPS at Sing Sing. We are glad to know that the program has an impact on the processes of rehabilitation in the system, on the success of our fellow citizens as they return to society, and on the safety and well-being of the neighborhoods to which they return.