February 14, 2010

New York State Senators Propose Cutting Prison Budget

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The New York State Department of Correctional Services spent over $15 million in “wasteful” overtime, administrative and housing costs, according to a report released last week by State Senators Jeff Klein (D – 34th District) and Diane Savino (D – 23rd District). The corrections department spent $87 million in overtime — more than any other state agency — in the 2008-09 fiscal year, according to The Ithaca Journal. The Cornell Prison Education Program, which works in the Auburn prison, receives private funding and would not be affected by the cuts.

The two senators proposed that the DOC cut overtime pay and consolidate administrative costs of prisons located near each other. Sharing administrators and contracts among “clustered” prisons could save $10 million, the senators estimate.

Prof. Mary Katzenstein, government, former faculty director and teacher in CPEP, fears that prisons will identify “wasteful” spending unwisely.

“My concern, shared by many others, is that some of the most helpful programs — drug counseling, religious programs, educational services, libraries, job training — will be scaled back,” Katzenstein said.

Katzenstein said that cutting such programs would be “seriously counterproductive,” since they reduce recidivism and save taxpayer money in the long term.

“I know that the budget cuts have hit the DOC facilities hard,” said James Schechter, executive director of CPEP. In his visits to Auburn prison, he has seen the effects of Gov. David Paterson’s budget cuts. Paterson has reduced correctional costs by almost $150 million in each of the last two years, according to Morgan Hook, a spokesperson for Paterson.

On the surface level, these cuts come down to everyday resources.

“A small and telling example: the programs area at Auburn used to have 14 printers. They are now down to two,” Schechter said. “Previously there were four administrative assistants supporting the volunteer services area. There is now one.”

Adina Rubin-Budick ’13, a CPEP volunteer, commented on the “striking” appearance of the Auburn prison.

“It has a very grim atmosphere — something out of Shawshank Redemption,” Rubin-Budick said. “Also, it looked antiquated. It clearly has not been renovated for a while.”

The CPEP plays an interesting role in this budget debate. By providing liberal arts curricula in Auburn and Cayuga Correctional Facilities, Cornell faculty and volunteers help prisoners gain Associate Arts degrees.

Though CPEP falls into the category of programs that Katzenstein fears will receive less funding as Paterson continues to cut costs, the cuts will not affect the program. Funded by a special, private donor, CPEP will continue its work even as prisons revise how they allocate funds.

“Some correctional officers are resentful about the fact that prisoners get a Cornell-associated education when they themselves have not received such opportunities,” Rubin-Budick said.

In the face of budget cuts, the CPEP stresses the importance of volunteer participation in prison education. Rubin-Budick noted strong volunteer presence in her experience at Auburn prison.

“Whether [prisoners] get out of prison or not, their entire intellectual beings are morphed,” Rubin-Budick said. “Also, it is an incredible educational opportunity for you as student. You develop a sensitivity to a subject you’re not typically exposed to.”

Original Author: Margo Cohen Ristorucci