ARUN RATH, HOST:

Once again it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. College-in-prison programs have all but collapsed nationwide. But this year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans to expand these programs in the state. NPR's Anya Kamenetz takes us inside the commencement ceremony of one program that is serving as a model.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMENCEMENT CEREMONY)

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: There's a toddler playing on the grass, students getting hugs from mom and dad, a band tuning up under a white tent and a bright blue sky full of fluffy white clouds. It's a lovely scene, one framed by locked gates and high fences topped with barbed wire. I walk up to one soon-to-be grad wearing a crisp button and gold colored tie.

I really like your outfit.

SEAN WILKINS: Thank you.

KAMENETZ: Sean Wilkins is surrounded by women - his wife, his grandmother, his aunt and his daughter.

SEAN WILKINS: I'm graduating, associates degree in liberal arts. I'm really excited about the whole affair. You know, I'm a guy who never even went to high school so, you know, this is a major event for me.

KAMENETZ: Wilkins grew up in Newburgh, New York. He went to prison when he was 21 for assault in the first degree. He has served 14 years of an 18 year sentence.

SEAN WILKINS: I'm just trying to prepare myself for successful reentry, you know, to just get myself geared up for society and to really just make it.

KAMENETZ: For the past 19 months, Wilkins has been studying hard. He took everything from drawing to the history of the civil rights movement.

SEAN WILKINS: You know, I had a lot of feelings that I didn't really know how to express very well. So, you know, now I have words for some of the ideas that I've always had.

KAMENETZ: Going back to school in his 30s, not to mention inside prison, wasn't always easy. But in a few minutes, he'll have his diploma from Bard College thanks to a small, highly selective program. Out of hundreds of inmates each year who take the essay exam to get in, only a few dozen are chosen. Wilkins' grandmother, Shirley Wilkins, says there's another secret to his success.

SHIRLEY WILKINS: The grace of God - if it weren't for prayer he wouldn't be here today. He might be in this place, but he wouldn't be here.

KAMENETZ: This place is Woodbourne Correctional Facility in Sullivan County, New York. It's the sight of the eleventh annual commencement of the Bard Prison Initiative, which enrolls 275 students at six prisons around New York State. Today, 36 men and women will graduate.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When you hear your name, you walk across the stage.

KAMENETZ: And it's time to begin. The students, now in black caps and gowns, line up, proceed on the isle and take their seats. Wilkins is in the second row and his family a few rows behind. The ceremony goes on like any with an invocation.

MAN: Let us pray. We come to give thanks.

KAMENETZ: And words from Max Kenner, who founded the program as an undergraduate at Bard College.

MAX KENNER: On behalf of all of Bard College, we are very proud to have a home here.

KAMENETZ: Until 1994, the Federal Pell Grant funded college for inmates. When that money was cut off, these initiatives had to rely on private donors, making them very rare and very small. Just a few dozen grant degrees around the countries.

KENNER: After 20 years since the demise of college in prisons national policy, perhaps decision makers have begun to tire of the cynicism dominating our approach to both criminal justice and education.

KAMENETZ: Recently, political leaders, mainly Democrats, have spoken publicly in favor of expanding access to college in prison. These include New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, California Attorney General Kamala Harris and New York Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney who gives today's commencement address.

REPRESENTATIVE SEAN PATRICK MALONEY: You know, Bard graduates are managing businesses, pursuing advanced degrees they're starting careers in public service. Heck, we might have a member of Congress sitting here this morning. I mean, not for a while, don't get any ideas.

KAMENETZ: And finally, comes the moment everyone has been waiting for.

MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to present members of the class of 2014.

KAMENETZ: As each graduate crosses the stage, he is beaming.

MAN: Sean Wilkins.

KAMENETZ: There are fist bumps and cheers all around. Then everyone lines up for a buffet lunch of salmon cooked by fellow inmates. Nationwide, about half of those released from prison will return. Among Bard graduates, the figure is just four percent. And college in prison doesn't just change the lives of students like Sean Wilkins. Studies show it can help break a generational cycle for the children of prisoners as well. Wilkins says when he's back home, he wants to get an MBA.

SEAN WILKINS: There was one time I thought you had to be a rocket scientist to do this, you know? You just got to do your work.

KAMENETZ: Dynasty is his 11 year old daughter.

DYNASTY WILKINS: I feel excited and happy that he finally graduated. We've been waiting all year for it. So I'm finally happy it happened.

KAMENETZ: Looking down at his daughter, Sean Wilkins shakes his head and says, you're going to make me cry. Anya Kamentez, NPR News.

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