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MMC’s Prison Ed Programs Award Degrees to 63 Women

  • Graduating students from the Taconic College Program. Photo: Angela James Photography/Hudson Link
  • Jessica S. ’22 was one of two class speakers at the Bedford Hills commencement ceremony.
Marymount Manhattan is celebrating 63 of its newest graduates who may not have taken classes at its 71st Street campus but are every bit a part of the MMC family: Women at two state correctional facilities who received their bachelor’s and associate degrees through the College’s two prison education programs.

In commencement ceremonies held on June 2, MMC President Kerry Walk conferred degrees on 39 incarcerated students at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Bedford Hills, NY, and 24 degrees on students at the adjacent medium-security prison Taconic Correctional Facility. Under the Bedford Hills College Program and Taconic College Program, justice-involved women enroll in courses leading to Associate of Arts degrees in social sciences or Bachelor of Arts degrees in sociology or politics and human rights. Each program follows the same general education and major requirements as the College’s main campus.

MMC has been the sole degree-granting institution at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for 25 years, awarding over 275 degrees since 1997. In 2019, the College began partnering with the nonprofit Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison to award degrees at Taconic. Hudson Link works with 11 New York State colleges to deliver undergraduate education to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

“The Bedford Hills College Program and Taconic College Program perfectly represent the mission of Marymount Manhattan College, which is to educate a diverse student body by fostering intellectual achievement and personal growth,” Walk said. “We are deeply proud of our Bedford and Taconic graduates, who are passionate ambassadors for education to justice-affected individuals.”

Hudson Link, which has facilitated the college program at Taconic since 2008, offers services such as college readiness support, on-site academic coordinators, tutoring, and computer labs. It also provides reentry support to help currently and formerly incarcerated people positively impact their lives, families, and communities.

In April, the organization expanded support services for alumni of MMC’s prison education programs by opening the doors to “Mo’s Place,” a transitional house specifically for college-educated formerly incarcerated women that offers a stable home and wrap-around support for students returning to their communities.

“Our students have overcome seemingly impossible odds, especially throughout the pandemic, and we could not be prouder of each and every one of them,” said Sean Pica, Hudson Link’s executive director. “We started the Taconic site to give students a program that would lead to a degree and real opportunities when coming home. Now, with the opening of our second transitional housing, which is dedicated to serving formerly incarcerated women, we’re able to do more to support these incredible students to reach their full potential.”

Moreover, he added, by partnering with Marymount Manhattan, with its long-running program at Bedford Hills, “we’ve created a seamless transfer for students when they are relocated from one prison to the other. We’re grateful to Marymount Manhattan and the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision who help make this program possible.”

Because both facilities were holding their first in-person commencements since 2019, Bedford’s graduation exercises included classes from 2020, 2021, and 2022; Taconic’s included 2021 and 2022. It was also the first time the Taconic program has graduated women who were receiving bachelor’s degrees.

All told, 14 Bedford students received bachelor’s degrees, and 25 received associate degrees, while at Taconic, 20 students received associate degrees, and four received bachelor’s degrees.

“Our students have worked so hard, especially during COVID, to complete their degrees and now have the opportunity to change the trajectory of their lives,” said Aileen Baumgartner, director of the Bedford Hills College Program. “On graduation day, all of us recognize and celebrate their achievements and are reminded of the immense value of the work that we do. We’re grateful to Marymount Manhattan College and to the administration of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for allowing and supporting this amazing program.”

The program’s graduates are equally as proud of themselves.

“Honestly, it feels surreal—coming from being a high school dropout to a bachelor’s graduate is something that wasn’t expected of me by others or especially by myself. It still amazes me that it happened,” said La Quavia J. ’22, a Taconic student. “Being in a place like this, you might lose hope, confidence, or self-worth, but education gives you something to focus on and shows you that you’re worth something.”

For Jessica S. ’22, one of two class speakers at the Bedford Hills commencement who is scheduled to return home next year, the program offered a chance to be a role model for her children and opens up employment opportunities that she might not otherwise have.

“Receiving my bachelor’s degree is important because I have children who will be going to college in the near future, and I want to set a good example for them,” she said. “I also wanted to give my family a reason to be proud of me, in spite of the mistakes I have made in the past. I hope this degree will give me a chance to support my children and to become a productive and engaged citizen of society.”