Prisoners try to prosper in “The University of Sing-Sing”

An HBO documentary focuses on a college education program for prisoners

Topics: TV, Prison, Education, College,

Prisoners try to prosper in "The University of Sing-Sing" (Credit: HBO)

Back when I worked at a newspaper, we would occasionally publish what one editor referred to as “thousand points of light” stories. A reference to a syrupy H.W. Bush-era catchphrase, these pieces were journalistic nods to individuals and/or organizations exhibiting supremely good intentions and trying to do right by whatever community they served.

Tonight, HBO airs “The University of Sing Sing,” a 40-minute special about inmates at the titular prison receiving adult education and progressing toward earning diplomas thanks to a nonprofit organization that offers college courses to prisoners serving long sentences. (Nineties hip-hop fans may be shocked to see a 30-something inmate named Chi-Ali Griffith among the inmates trying to better themselves.) The broadcast is not particularly illuminating as far as the specifics of Hudson Link and Mercy College’s curriculum. Other than an encouraging statistic at the top of the final credits, nor do the filmmakers make much of an attempt to follow up on the success of matriculated students.

As beautiful and transformative as the language cited in the short film may seem, the cynical among us may wonder what immediate, practical application Langston Hughes and “A Raisin in the Sun” may have once these prisoners are released back into the world to face a myriad of prejudices both warranted and not.



But “The University of Sing Sing” is not a film for the cynical. Otherwise, its subjects would not be portrayed in such a pitiable light despite the fact that most of them are doing a decade or more for violent crimes. “University” invites us to look at these men not as they were, but as they are now, and – more important – how they may one day be if any of what they are learning manages to sink in.

This morning, a colleague of mine ended a disheartening post about a child molester with the question, “Who thrives in prison?” The courageous folk behind Hudson Link would offer, without the least bit of sarcasm, a surprisingly optimistic answer to that question. Whether you believe in the value of their mission or not, only the most bitter would begrudge these educators less than an hour of airtime.

Neil Drumming

Neil Drumming is a staff writer for Salon. Follow him on Twitter @Neil_Salon.

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