A woman with dark hair and eyes and olive complexion, facing camera and smiling slightly.
Serena Martin '05, executive director of New Hour for Women and Children

Education and earning a degree from Adelphi offered a lifeline to Serena Martin ’05. As executive director for New Hour, she now leads efforts to support incarcerated women and promote policy reform in New York state.

Serena Martin ’05 was 22 years old when she was released from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York state’s largest women’s prison, where she had earned her associate degree in its College Program. She was eager to earn a bachelor’s degree. But she was also now supporting herself by working two and sometimes three jobs. “As someone who had survived incarceration, I felt like I had been through a war and out of place in a regular college setting,” Martin said.

She researched colleges on Long Island that offered night and weekend classes and found Adelphi’s Adult Baccalaureate Learning Experience (ABLE) program, now the College of Professional and Continuing Studies, which helps working adults obtain a college degree. She has used that degree to build a career helping other incarcerated women.

Martin is executive director of the program she helped to found in 2015, New Hour for Women and Children. The nonprofit is dedicated to empowering and supporting women and mothers within Long Island’s three jails.

It’s a program she said would have benefited her had it existed when she was released. But Martin said she was lucky that Bedford offered her the opportunity to take college classes. She was just 19, a 4.0 undergraduate and a cheerleader when her mother’s mental illness led to her becoming an accessory in a family violence situation.

“When everything fell apart, even while I was incarcerated, being a part of a college program inside of prison kind of centered me and made me feel as though I wasn’t just an inmate number,” Martin said.

A Little Community

That’s why she called her experience at Adelphi “like a breath of fresh air.” All her classmates were returning students who were warm and nonjudgmental.

“I felt so much more at home,” said Martin, who at the time was among the youngest at 23. “I was with people who were going back in their 40s and 50s and had never finished school or raised their children first. We were like a little community, and the professors were so deeply dedicated. Looking back, I remember the generosity of heart, thought and giving the professors had toward us.”

But it wasn’t easy. Martin was juggling work with classes, sometimes driving to class early Saturday morning after working a late shift as a waitress. “I was really committed. I knew that if I wanted to do something in my career that I would need that degree as a baseline.”

Spearheading Legislation

Instead, Martin got her first professional job in 2003 at the Long Island Progressive Coalition and then as associate director of policy at the Correctional Association of New York’s Women in Prison Project, where she spearheaded legislative initiatives and policy advocacy addressing prison reform. She was the key organizer of a successful effort to create the Adoption and Safe Families Act Expanded Discretion Law, which works to secure parental rights for incarcerated parents, as well as the Anti-Shackling Law, which prohibits the shackling of incarcerated mothers during labor.

She then worked as an advocacy director and co-director at Herstory Writers Workshop, using memoir writing to empower women in prison. In 2015, she was asked by Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, an advocate for prison reform who founded Hour Children, to help develop a program to support women in the Suffolk County correctional facilities. Martin drafted a business plan for New Hour, creating programs that offered the support she never received in prison.

A Commitment to Advocacy

Since then, New Hour has provided more than 12,000 women with services such as pickups from jail, transportation to social services, basic needs like clothing and toiletries, and helping them come up with a plan following their release from the Nassau and Suffolk jails.

In addition, she oversees and leads carceral reform across New York state through advocacy and policy reform efforts, including Governor Kathy Hochul’s NYS Domestic Violence Task Force, the Suffolk County Welfare to Work Task Force, Justice 4 Women Task Force, along with the Women’s Community Justice Association and the Suffolk County Police Reform and Reinvention Task Force.

Martin is a recipient of the 2018 Citizens Against Recidivism award, the 2022 Houses on the Moon Leyton Award and the 2023 Islip Town NAACP Award. She has also been featured in the media, including Newsday and News12.

And her activism is ongoing. She and New Hour are advocating the New York State Legislature for the CARE Act, which would provide reproductive care and support for pregnant women and create nurseries in prisons and jails.

Promoting an Education

As New Hour executive director, one of Martin’s main messages to the women she supports is the importance of education.

“I believe it is that lifeline to get you through some of the harder times in life. When women come through our doors, they’ll often look at me and say, ‘I can’t believe you were in prison.’ I often say to them, ‘You don’t have a scarlet letter A on you. Nobody knows what you’ve been through. You and I are the same.’”

She added, “I think that the kind of education I got out of Adelphi gave me the confidence that I really needed to be able to help the women I work with. I try to tell them that education gives you that self-esteem that you need to keep going; it really does make a difference.”

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