First Degree (2016)

Two-time Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Roger Weisberg (“Sound and Fury,” “Why Can’t We Be a Family Again?”) helmed this intriguing documentary short on efforts by New York’s notorious Sing Sing Prison to reduce recidivism through higher education.

A primary force in this endeavor is Sean Pica, who first came to Sing Sing as a 16-year-old convict—he earned his Bachelor’s Degree while incarcerated and later returned to run the prison’s program in conjunction with Mercy College. Also interviewed is Jermaine Archer, a former drug dealer and convicted murderer who is banking on his degree to help facilitate a successful reintegration with the outside world. Also included here is graduation ceremony within the prison—and no less a figure than legendary singer/actor Harry Belafonte is the commencement speaker, offering an upbeat pep talk for the unlikely student body.

The film details how the program also provides job-hunting consultation involving work-appropriate clothing, resume writing and interview training. One graduate, Clarence Maclin, benefits from this last boost and is able to gain work as a social worker counseling juvenile offenders. There is also a financial consideration of how the investment in education proves to be more cost-effective: recidivism among graduates of the Sing Sing program is miniscule.

Sadly, “First Degree” has a troubling post-script: funding for this type of program has been shrinking over the years while the U.S. prison population is ballooning. Hopefully, this well-made and moving tribute to the power of education can help change minds and bring more money back to this worthy cause.