CBS News’ Bill Whitaker has spoken at college commencements before, but never at one where most graduates weren’t free to leave with their families.
Whitaker urged 44 men who earned college degrees Wednesday while inmates at Sing Sing state prison to go “seize your place in the universe” with what they’ve learned.
Sing Sing, for which the phrases “up the river” and “The Big House” were coined, has for two decades offered inmates the chance to earn a degree through Mercy College, and Wednesday’s class was the largest ever.
Whitaker said that at a prison he visited in Germany, inmates are given keys to their own cells, prompting the head of the Sing Sing college degree program to joke to the warden about trying it there.
With their education, Whitaker told the graduates, “you can set yourself free, where it counts. Up here,” he said, pointing to his head. Three graduates, including the valedictorian, have been freed physically and returned to Sing Sing to pick up their degrees.
Guests for the ceremony had to put many of their belongings in lockers, go through metal detectors and be ushered through two locked doors. But it was a joyous occasion, with caps and gowns.
“It was a moving experience,” Whitaker said before leaving. “I was very glad I came.”