by Christopher Zoukis
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has long advocated for more higher education programs in New York state prisons. His plans have drawn criticism from conservatives who take issue with the use of public funds to educate convicted criminals. But with the help of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, the governor has put together a plan that will award around $7.3 million to colleges offering classes to state prisoners – without using taxpayer money.
The funding for the program, which the New York Times estimates will create college courses and reentry services for about 2,500 prisoners, will come from settlements reached between large banks and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. The college programs will be taught at 17 prisons throughout the state; seven universities will offer classes and degree programs for incarcerated students.
New York is one of the few states to have partnered with colleges to offer in-prison classes. Bard College’s prison program has been active in the Empire State since 1999, and about 500 prisoners have earned degrees. The new funding is essential to higher education programs, said Bard Prison Initiative founder Max Kenner.
“We’re a little college that operates with no student tuition, no endowment and no government money,” he stated. “It’s a perpetual starvation budget situation, and funding like this made possible by this governor as well as the district attorney of [Manhattan] keeps our doors open.”
Vance told the New York Times that college classes for prisoners were part of a “public safety strategy” to reduce recidivism – “the first premise of penal law.” He added, “It makes no sense to send someone to prison with no pathway for them to succeed when they get out. Investing in college education programs is a proven, cost-effective way to break the harmful cycle of recidivism and keep our communities safe.”
Meanwhile, Governor Cuomo highlighted the importance of improving the state’s rehabilitation strategies. “Incarceration is supposed to be about rehabilitating those who may have lost their way in the past,” he said. “And it’s time that we get back to embracing that principle as a society.”
Not everyone embraces that principle, though. In August 2016, New York state lawmakers nixed a proposal by the governor that would have allocated $1 million a year in public funds to prison college programs.
Numerous studies have found that the more education prisoners receive, the lower their recidivism rates, the greater their chance of obtaining post-release employment and the greater cost savings to local communities. A 2016 meta-analysis of prison education programs published by RAND Corporation, “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education,” summarized past research on that topic.
Two bills pending in Congress, S.1136 and H.R. 2451, would reinstate Pell grant eligibility for incarcerated students, which would help to expand prison college programs nationwide. The Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization, submitted a letter in support of the bills on February 23, 2018.
Sources: www.nytimes.com, www.lohud.com, www.governor.ny.gov, www.timesunion.com
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