31 March 2014 | StevePulaski
An unfathomable opportunity or an unnecessary "free lunch?"
Tim Skousen's The University of Sing Sing attempts to address a question I've long had about the American prison system that seems to effortlessly lock up more and more souls every day and that question is 'is our incarceration system meant for rehabilitation or punishment?' I'm in no position to answer that question but it's clear the people at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossinging, New York have already tried to make the experience about the first option rather than the second. The facility has prided itself upon giving its inmates plentiful college education, stimulating their minds with the wonders of English, philosophy, classic literature, and critical thinking to emerge better people than they were when they entered.
The program was started by a group called "Hudson Link," a quintet of former inmates at Sing Sing who banded together to give current inmates an opportunity not directly focused on righting wrongs, but instead, one that assured opportunity and attempts at preventing future wrongs from being committed. The teachers are certified college professors who devote their own time to coming in and helping educate the inmates. The inevitable question that is sure to come up from this is the accusation that the inmates of Sing Sing are obtaining a one-in-a-million free ride, while numerous teenagers fall into unpayable debt with their own student loans. The accusation is understandable, but teacher Jo Ann Skousen - the wife of the short's director Tim - states boldly and assertively, "do you want them coming out of prison the same way they came in?" The short starts off by juxtaposing Langston Hughes' iconic poem "Harlem" in with the lives of the facility's many prisoners before it goes into humanizing a select few. One of the men is Joel Jiminez, who is imprisoned for twenty years for killing a man he thought was in self defense but turned out to be a murder on an unarmed man. Jiminez has missed the crucial years of his now eighteen-year-old daughter and his meetings with Natalie are just basic little date nights held within the cold walls of Sing Sing. Another crucial man to cast a light on in the short is Sean Pica, one of the founding members of Sing Sing's college program, who began as a body-builder when he was young before shooting and killing his friend's father and landing in the prison for several years. When he emerged, he rounded up four others and started something fundamental and likely essential building block of education inside the walls of prison, providing new, unforeseen opportunities to inmates.
I'm willing to bet Sing Sing's educational program isn't widely known by the general public, which makes me curious to see how public perception would fare if the issue were to end up on the ballot in a future election. Would Americans see an educational prison system as a bogus free ride for undeserving louses or would it be seen as an opportunity to better off people who will likely have to be entered back into conventional society at a later date? I could see a solid argument for both sides, but feel the numbers for Sing Sing's success speak for themselves. The average rate of a prisoner returning to prison after being set free in a time frame of three years, we're told, is 43%, where the Hudson Link program has seen less than a 2% remission rate. The only voice in this film I was waiting to hear was from the men of the prison that felt the opportunity at receiving college education was nonsense and simply not worth their time.
The University of Sing Sing ends with an enormous and heartwarming graduation amongst the inmates, who have grieved long hours of studying in a place that never sleeps, to earn time with their family, a beautiful ceremony, and a sense of pride and completion in themselves. After the ceremony, however, rather than going to after-parties, to a restaurant, or just back home to soak in the feeling, the prisoners return to their cells and the families return home, all happy with what they've just witnessed and been a part of, but sad that the grueling bout of prison isn't over.
The short, on its own, does a great job at making a case for an educational prison system. In the beginning, the short kind of muddies its focus by immediately repositioning its sights on the inmates rather than on the system, but this is an essential change due to the fact that we simply need to know the people involved in this system and how they take to it. Furthermore, just for an offbeat point in my criticism, the short is airing throughout April 2014 on HBO, and it's nice to see a documentary HBO acquired that isn't upsetting in any significant way. The last few documentaries shown on the network have involved merciless economic survival amongst low income families, the neverending battle between creationists and evolutionists, the outbreak of the AIDS virus and the lack of key support on many different platforms, and the death of a man in prison. The University of Sing Sing provides some optimism in the long-run for not just a community but a society.
NOTE: The University of Sing Sing will air throughout the month of April 2014 on HBO.
Directed by: Tim Skousen.