Jermaine Archer Square

Some people knew her as Arlene Mohammed, but her name was Mo and she brought people together. Mo was a strong black woman from another era, the one that followed Jim Crow but preceded Civil Rights, the one when black men had to be tough and black women had to be tougher. She triumphed over life as a third class citizen, a black woman in a white man’s world and wherever she went, whether college campuses or, dare I say it, correctional facilities, she displayed a knack for uniting people.

Mo survived the concrete walls and steel cages of Bedford Hills in the 1980’s, when prison violence peaked and outsiders had no idea what life behind the wall meant. The women who ran the prison were generally the most violent ones. But not Mo. As an incarcerated unifier, Mo rallied her peers to organize and demand changes, beginning with education. During the height of the AIDS epidemic, with rates of HIV infection at all time highs for incarcerated mothers, Mo co-wrote a proposal calling for courses on HIV and AIDS. When nothing came of it she and her peers studied and conducted unofficial classes on HIV and AIDS. Their efforts led to the creation of the AIDS Counseling and Education program (A.C.E.), which incarcerated men later copied as the Prisoners for AIDS Counseling and Education program (P.A.C.E.) and which has since spread across New York State prisons. Mo went on create or co-create many more programs that continue to serve incarcerated individuals, and upon her release, she had every right to be satisfied with her achievements.

In 1995, Governor Pataki signed Executive Order 5, which stopped state funding for college programs in prison. Several men in Sing Sing developed an idea of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, a non-profit organization designed to help incarcerated individuals complete their college degrees after higher learning was interrupted by Executive Order 5. The men incorporated the organization but the first academic coordinator failed to get the program off the ground.

By this time Mo had been released and, most likely, wanted nothing more to do with prison. However. when Sing Sing prisoners called on her for help, she agreed to hear them out. From experience, Mo knew that in prison you get one chance to create a program. When a prison program launched and failed, prison administrators shelved it and moved on. Mo visited the Sing Sing cadre and, after hearing their plans. agreed to serve as the academic coordinator. She worked with Nyack College to get Hudson Link off the ground and before long she had Mercy College, SUNY Sullivan. and other colleges on board. Under Mo‘s leadership. the program’s original goals of allowing incarcerated men to complete degrees were expanded to include recruiting new students, resulting in hundreds of imprisoned males and ultimately females earning college degrees, which further resulted in reducing New York’s recidivism rate from over 60% to less than 1%. As academic coordinator she won over administrators, unified students and left a lasting legacy.

Don’t miss Jermaine Archer’s story: Why I Let The Guy Go, Instead of Terminating on Sight

Ironically, Mo would not want to be written about, She never wanted credit; she just did her job and she kept her head down, which she demonstrated over and over by putting other people out front when celebrities and cameras showed up to Sing Sing. When Hudson Link sponsored a TED-x event at Sing Sing, bringing incarcerated people together with community folks. Mo did the grunt work while staying out of the spotlight. The New York Times published an article about the event and included my picture, as the emcee, Mo avoided the cameras and refused to take any credit. She also shunned the cameras when Ice-T judged a debate between Sing Sing Mercy College students and community Nyack students.

Mo used words intentionally. She never called us inmates. She never even called me a clerk during the time I worked for her—I was her “assistant.” While working for her, she told me she had served prison time for killing someone and then looked at me for about a minute in silence. Looking at her, I realized she refused to be identified by that act or any other single moment in time, which taught me that I don’t have to be identified by one bad decision or moment in my life.

One time I asked to let me sit out a semester so I could focus on my role in a prison play we were rehearsing for. She sat me out—for two semesters. When I asked to be let back in college. Mo told me I needed to get my priories straight. I was taking for granted the opportunity to earn a college degree in prison and no one knew how long that opportunity would last. I needed to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my time inside and eventually outside and that I should start by admitting I was not Denzell Washington. She told me that, as a black man with a felony, I would have to do better than most if I wanted to succeed after my release and that “success starts now.” Mo‘s words changed my lite. Since then, I earned a Master Degree and took advantage of every rehabilitative. educational, or therapeutic program available to me in prison. Those words led me to many programs. again bringing people together for positive purposes.

Even in passing, Mo brought people together. On March 2, 2018, a cold Friday night when people would rather be anywhere other than prison, former DOCCS Commissioner Brian Fischer. Mercy College Professor Susan Weiner. and the Very Reverend Petero Sabune traveled through a snowstorm a to Sing Sing to celebrate Mo’s life with incarcerated Hudson Link students and alumni. We laughed. we cried, we shared stories and we hugged. We came together to remember someone special. Her name was Mo and she brought people together. That’s what she did. Here’s to you Mo—thanks, for everything.

Jermaine Archer was finally released from Sing Sing in December 2020 and is home with his wife and family for his very first Christmas in 23 years!