America used to have a robust college education system for prison inmates. It was seen as a way to rehabilitate men and women behind bars by helping them go straight when they got out.
Those taxpayer-funded college classes were defunded in the 1990s. But New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo would like to bring them back in the state, prompting a fierce new debate over higher education in state prisons.
Things have become so heated that a reporter even evoked Mark David Chapman, the man who murdered John Lennon, in a question to Cuomo this month in Buffalo, N.Y. “What do you say to a Yoko Ono if Mark David Chapman says, ‘I want a college education?’ ” the reporter asked.
Cuomo, a Democrat, says reinstating taxpayer-funded college classes in New York’s prisons is a common-sense plan that will reduce the number of inmates who commit new crimes.
“Forget nice; let’s talk about self-interest,” Cuomo responded. “You pay $60,000 for a prison cell for a year. You put a guy away for 10 years, that’s 600 grand. Right now, chances are almost half, that once he’s released, he’s going to come right back.”
Cuomo says helping inmates get a college education would cost about $5,000 a year per person — chump change, he argues, if it keeps that inmate from bouncing back into prison.
But even some members of the governor’s own party hate this idea. State Assemblywoman Addie Russell, whose upstate district includes three state prisons, says taxpayers just won’t stand for inmates getting a free college education, while middle-class families struggle to pay for their kids’ tuition, housing and books.
“That is the vast majority of feedback that I’m also getting from my constituents,” she says. “You know, ‘Where is the relief for the rest of the law-abiding population?’ ”
If this argument sounds familiar, the fight here in New York is a carbon copy of the national debate over prison education programs 20 years ago.
In 1994, President Clinton pushed through a tough crime bill that dramatically expanded America’s prison system, while also eliminating federal student aid programs for inmates.
“There must be no doubt about whose side we’re on,” Clinton argued. “People who commit crimes should be caught, convicted and punished. This bill puts government on the side of those who abide by the law, not those who break it.”
It was a victory for the tough-on-crime movement, but many prison experts now say dismantling inmate education programs was misguided.
“I was very disappointed that the policy had been changed,” says Gerald Gaes, who served as an expert on college programs for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the 1990s. He has since written extensively on the impact of higher education behind bars.
Gaes says research shows that college classes actually save taxpayers money over time, by reducing the number of inmates who break the law and wind up back in those expensive prison cells.
“It is cost-effective,” he says. “Designing prisons that way will have a long-term benefit for New York state.”
A 2013 joint study by the RAND Corporation and the Department of Justice also found that participants in prison education programs, including GED education, college courses and other types of training, were less likely to return to prison after their release.
Bipartisan critics in New York’s Legislature have promised to kill Cuomo’s proposal, with one lawmaker describing it as “Club Med” for inmates.
But the plan plays very differently with black and Hispanic lawmakers, who have pushed for prison reforms. Cuomo drew a standing ovation in February when he spoke to a largely black church congregation in Albany.
“Let’s use common sense, the economic cost, the human cost — let’s invest and rehabilitate people so they have a future,” he told the crowd. “That’s what works.”
With New York’s budget due next month, Cuomo says he hopes to fund college classes in 10 prisons as a trial program. He’s had success in the past pushing controversial ideas that seemed dead on arrival, including same-sex marriage in 2011 and a strict gun control law last year.
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