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NYTS launches state's first master's program for incarcerated women

Bedford Hills Correctional Facility to offer master's program
Bedford Hills Correctional Facility to offer master's program 02:26

NEW YORK - The New York Theological Seminary brought the first master's program to prisoners at Sing Sing Correctional Facility 40 years ago. The seminary is marking the milestone with an expansion, launching the first master's program for incarcerated women in the state of New York.

NYTS supporters came together for the first time in three years for the Urban Angels Gala, celebrating the continued success of its master's program at Sing Sing. The seminary has awarded more than 500 master's degrees in Professional Studies.

For the first time in its 122-year history, a woman now serves as NYTS president. Dr. LaKeesha Walrond also serves as first lady of First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem.

"As the first woman president, my question was, well, why aren't we doing this for the women?" Walrond recalled.

The recidivism rate for program graduates at Sing Sing is lower than 10 percent. Recidivism has been lower than 5 percent for the past decade.

This fall, the one-year course is coming to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women, where Walrond expects the student population to excel.

"When you look at statistics you see many of these women have suffered violence," Walrond said. "Many of them have had challenges even with addiction, but it all started with something that happened in the past."

"We have a tendency to just forget about them," Walrond continued, "a tendency to throw them away, but often the only difference between them and some of us is that we just didn't get caught."

Topeka K. Sam got caught in a drug sting and found herself facing ten years in prison. Inside, her eyes were opened to the harm she caused, hearing other inmates' stories.

"She said that our father had been raping her and he gave her heroin and told her to take the heroin so the pain would go away," Sam said, remembering conversations. "Another woman said that the only time she was able to spend time with her mom was when they smoke crack together… and then I began to realize that these women didn't have a choice."

Sam prayed for forgiveness and looked for a way to turn her life around, but found her options for continuing education lacking.

"The programs that are typically offered in the system are knitting, crocheting … for women," Sam said, "where we see for men, they have other skills-based opportunities that they can land employment when they get out."

Sam hand-wrote and mailed assignments to complete the seminary's Certificate of Prison Ministry program. Once freed, she founded the Ladies of Hope Ministries, and NYTS just awarded her an honorary Doctorate for her work to uplift other women who remain incarcerated.

"We want to give women the same opportunity to reimagine who they can be," Walrond said, "beyond the trauma, beyond the pain, beyond the mistakes … that they are still whole. They are still created in the image and likeness of God, and they are empowered to pursue unlimited possibilities."

The course comes at a cost, but NYTS has done it for years walking by faith, and philanthropy.

"It's because of folks who believe in the power of redemption, who are able to say … I want to be a part of someone being able to live the life that God has called them to live," said Walrond.

Women at Bedford Hills will find their calling this fall.

The New York Theological Seminary continues its fundraising efforts to pay for the dual programs. It costs around $25,000 per student to complete a degree.

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