George Chochos: Returning Citizen—Not ‘Ex-Offender’—Thrives At YDS

By: 
Ellen B. Koneck, '16 M.A.R.

“What is the possibility of a person like me going to a place like Yale?” This is a question George Chochos ’16 M.Div. still finds himself asking on occasion.

It’s a good question, since Chochos didn’t arrive at YDS by conventional means. In fact, a lot of people are asking this question and telling Chocos’s story. He’s been written about, interviewed, and cited as an exemplary story of overcoming great odds to achieve success. His story motivates politicians, pastors, reformers, and educators alike. That’s because in addition to being a divinity school student, a father, a social reformer and many other things, Chochos is a “returning citizen”—a category otherwise referred to as “ex-offender.”

So how did Chochos arrive at Yale? Like many of the YDS students who have not spent time in prison: by faith, perseverance, intelligence, and a sense of calling.

The beginning of faith

Although he was raised Greek Orthodox, Chochos’ personal story of faith and redemption didn’t begin until later in life. He had a rocky childhood and young adult life, and in 1995, his brother’s suicide sent Chochos into a downward spiral and three years of cocaine addiction and crime. Near the end of this spree, he was arrested on drug charges.

Arriving in an empty holding cell, Chochos noticed a book: The Daily Word—a devotional. Struck by its conspicuous presence, he snuck it into his permanent cell and began praying daily. After only a few days of prayer, Chochos was convinced. He “called upon the name of the Lord,” as he recalls the moment, and was surprised to find this simple prayer producing two immediate and vivid desires: to know God more deeply and to acquire an education.

Enduring prison

Old habits die hard, and, despite Chochos’ newfound faith and decision to quit cocaine, aspects of his previous lifestyle lingered. In March 2000, Chochos was sentenced to 14 years in prison for bank robbery. At sentencing, Chochos “broke down,” he recalls—but quickly composed himself, knowing he couldn’t show weakness where he was going. “Occasionally the movies exaggerate prison life, ” he explained, “but it’s often right on the money.” Before crossing the liminal space from society to prison, he made a simple and powerful resolution not to hurt or be hurt for the next 14 years of his life, fully aware of just how difficult that might be. The crime, drugs, violence, and tension of hyper-vigilance in prison life didn’t shake his faith. Amazingly, he said, “it made my precarious situation before God even more obvious.”

Nearly a year into his sentence, Chochos was transferred from Sing Sing Correctional Facility to Clinton Correctional Facility, where he encountered a unique educational prison program. Called “Network,” the program offered life-skills workshops and certifications. Chochos participated fully.

This is also where he learned of Eastern New York Correctional Facility—a prison with an excellent reputation, though at the time, he didn’t know precisely why. He requested a transfer. It was a risky move because, while inmates can usually receive a transfer if they request one, they can only suggest—not dictate—where they go. Seeing the bags of numerous transferees marked “Green Haven”—a prison without the educational system that made Eastern unique—Chochos was reminded of his powerlessness. In a moment of providence not unlike finding The Daily Word, Chochos was selected as one of only a handful of transfers to Eastern for that term.

Pursuing education

Upon arriving at Eastern, Chochos got involved with a bible study group, which “had a library to rival the Divinity School,” Chochos recalled. He joined the small group of learners (a group open to everyone at Eastern and funded privately by the leader of these book studies, not by the state) and began studying Greek, Hebrew, church history, and Calvinism. It was through this group that Chochos learned of the competitive higher education program offered at a select group of prisons. Eastern was one of them; Chochos quickly set his heart and mind on this program.

In the state of New York at the time, there were approximately 72,000 women and men in prison. Only a handful of prisons offered programs in higher education. At Eastern, 150 inmates applied, 35 were interviewed, and 15 were accepted into the program. After wowing his interviewers with a thoughtful critique of a scholar’s interpretation of Calvin, Chochos was unsurprisingly among the newly admitted students.

The education program, through the innovative Bard Prison Initiative, began with grammar, writing, introductory logic, and formal-informal reasoning classes. Students enrolled in only two classes per semester while adjusting to the new demands of student life. Since computers were not allowed in prison programs, Chochos waded through thousands of pages of primary and secondary sources to learn material, construct arguments, and write papers.

He was awarded his associate’s degree in 2007. In 2008, Chochos applied for and enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program, again through Bard—a feat of which he is particularly proud, since the same admissions personnel who considered and admitted traditional incoming freshmen was also responsible for admitting inmates. Through his academic focus on urban economics and sociology, Chochos came into contact with scholars and ideas that changed his world—including renowned NYU scholar Harvey Molotch, who paid a visit to Chochos in order to discuss Chochos’ critique of his theory on city growth dynamics.

He finished his bachelor’s degree in 2007, spoke at his class graduation in 2008, completed his second bachelor’s in June 2010, and transferred back to Sing Sing while finishing a master’s degree in Urban Ministry from New York Theology Seminary. Chochos was awarded an A- on his 162-page senior thesis, which he used to apply to Yale Divinity School.

Sense of calling

Chochos felt called to Yale—he had read books by Yale professors and alumni and had met alumni involved in prison ministries, and he desired the academic rigor he knew YDS would provide.

Now in his second year in the Master of Divinity program, Chochos acknowledges that it has not always been easy. “What is conducive to surviving in prison is not conducive to thriving in society,” he observed. And after a decade on the periphery of society, Chochos feels the difference: he is still getting used to using computers for schoolwork and trying to balance his commitments to prison reform justice with his academic obligations. Nonetheless, Chochos is thriving.

He plans to pursue a Ph.D., continue serving in his local church, and teach in the very prison programs in which he was enrolled. “I’m here,” he said, “only because of people before me who had acquired education and encouraged me to do the same.” An advocate for prison reform and education as a proven and sustainable way of lowering the rate of recidivism among criminals, Chochos has his life’s work laid out for him.

For Chochos, Yale is part of this vision; he hopes that Yale will continue its policy of considering nontraditional students and that YDS will “keep an open mind for brilliant returning citizens—I don’t like ‘ex-offender’—to come to the Yale community, so we can change the world.”

Ellen B. Koneck is a first-year M.A.R. student interested in Roman Catholic theology. She has previously written for Commonweal and Whether.

March 31, 2015