MMC Celebrates 27 New Grads from its Prison Education Programs

For the 27 students who graduated from MMC’s college programs at the Bedford Hills and Taconic correctional facilities for women this spring, commencement brought all the typical nervous excitement: fussing over caps and adjusting hoods and stoles, searching for friends and family members in the audience.

Still, the celebrations—one in Bedford Hills’ auditorium, the other outdoors on Taconic grounds—were anything but routine. For some, the milestone took decades of work and dogged determination to achieve. And for all, it was life-changing—not just for the opportunities a diploma can bring an incarcerated student after release, but for who it signified they had become.

“With education, we found liberation, self-acceptance, and self-worth,” said Tammara M. ’23, one of two class speakers at the Bedford Hills commencement. Education, she added, “is the one thing an incarcerated person can receive that can never be taken away.”

Held on May 25, the ceremonies are a cherished part of commencement season at MMC, which kicked off with graduation exercises for students from the College’s 71st Street campus. All told, MMC conferred three bachelor’s degrees, 13 associate degrees, and three high school equivalency diplomas on students in its Bedford Hills College Program and five bachelor’s degrees and three associate degrees on students in its Taconic College Program. It recognized the extraordinary scholarly achievements of five graduating seniors from both facilities at its 46th Annual Honors Day in April.

MMC has been the sole degree-granting institution at Bedford Hills, a maximum-security facility, for over 20 years after fighting in the 90s to continue the college program amid federal funding cuts. In 2019, MMC began partnering with the nonprofit Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison to award degrees at the medium-security Taconic Correctional Facility. The College holds several events throughout the year to foster connection and collaboration across all its learning sites, including its biennial Crossing Borders academic conference.

In her address to graduates, whose “life’s journeys had brought them to this magnificent point,” MMC President Kerry Walk said, “The fundamental idea of a liberal arts education is that it equips us to achieve our potential as free human beings.”

“Education frees our minds, helps us understand other worlds, and gives us the concepts and ideas to understand who we were and who we’ve become,” she said.

Now, with their degrees in hand, Bedford Hills and Taconic graduates join a community of more than 300 alums from MMC prison education programs—and set an important example nationwide: According to a 2022 report from the Vera Institute of Justice, students in housing designated for women make up 15 percent of incarcerated student enrollment, but only 7 percent complete their degrees.

Bedford Hills class speaker Tami E. ’23 said it had taken her more than 15 years to earn her bachelor’s after first enrolling in the Bedford Hills College Program in 2002. Initially derailed by discipline sanctions and a move to special housing, she re-enrolled in 2008, focused, ready, and vowing not to give up—even when that meant writing 20-page papers by hand or managing long-distance learning via mail during COVID.

Tami has since become one of the program’s biggest success stories and ambassadors. She even started a step team that serves as an important recruiting tool for new students; only those enrolled in the college program may join.

Comparing the struggle incarcerated students face to the story of Helen Keller, Tami said their degrees were proof that she and fellow graduates had seen through the darkness, guided by the college program’s light. “We didn’t allow our physical confinement to consume us,” she said.

Taconic class speaker Jennifer R. ’23 echoed that theme, noting that before the college program, she “hadn’t believed in anything,” but once she became a student, she became motivated to change her status in life and discovered new confidence. “It’s funny how I had to come to prison to learn the value of an education,” she said.

The impact of commencement extends beyond the graduates as well. “It’s definitely a huge day for them—I’m in touch with alumni, and they still talk about how big a deal graduation was,” said Duston Spear, a faculty member who has taught in the Bedford Hills College Program for 21 years and will begin teaching at Taconic. “But it’s also a day when their families, who’ve grappled with a lot of difficulty and shame, can be fully proud.” Further, she said research has shown that a mother’s education level affects the educational outcomes of her children—which means the graduates’ achievement could affect generations to come.

Indeed, as a sign of the importance of family relationships and support, many of the graduates were accompanied to the stage by relatives. Tami’s adult daughter Laquintae walked alongside her wearing a custom t-shirt emblazoned with a message for her mother: “I am Proud of You.”

“It’s an inspiration to see my mom graduate,” she said. “It gives me a reason to be here outside the regular visit, and I get to see her in a different light as class speaker.” More than that, she said, her mother’s achievement demonstrates how far resolve can take you. “It lets me know, even in the outside world, that I can do anything.”

View pictures from the ceremonies below! Taconic images: Angela James Photography for Hudson Link for Higher Education

Published: June 21, 2023