February 24, 2014

EDITORIAL: In Support of College Education in Prisons

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) announced an initiative earlier this month that would provide those incarcerated in New York State prisons the opportunity to earn a college education. In response, Cornell students and faculty have expressed their support, saying that the program would decrease the recidivism rate — the percentage of prisoners who are rearrested after release — and save the state money in the future. With a current recidivism rate of 40 percent, Cuomo has recognized the need for a program to help alleviate the problem of criminals returning to prison. Cornell has also shown its commitment to prison education through its own Prison Education Program, which provides classes to inmates at Auburn Correctional Facility and Cayuga Correctional Facility. We laud the University for continuing its commitment to CPEP, as well as State officials for recognizing the benefits of these kinds of programs. We believe that the benefits — to both inmates and the general population — of instituting a prison education system statewide outweigh the initial cost.

Currently, the State of New York spends $60,000 a year per prisoner on incarcerations, according to a press release from Cuomo. While it does cost an additional $5,000 a year per prisoner to provide courses to complete a Bachelors or Associate degree, this cost should save the state in imprisonment costs later on. According to a study from the RAND corporation, inmates who participated in education programs were 13 percent less likely to be arrested again within three years of release. According to Rob Scott, executive director of the Cornell Prison Education Program, the potential savings associated with inmate education are such that “for every person who is released from prison without returning, we save enough money to fund 12 more students to go to college while incarcerated.” By reinvesting some of those funds in prison education, the State could both save money and continue to strive toward a lower rate of recidivism.

Critics of the proposal say the program is unfair; they argue that inmates should not be given free college education over students from low-income backgrounds who have never been incarcerated. We agree that low-income students should be a priority when it comes to financial aid and gaining access to education. However, the money being used to fund these programs is coming from a different pool than state-sponsored aid programs. The Federal Pell Grant Program, one of the main financial aid programs for low-income students was available to inmates until 1994, when Congress passed legislation that disqualified inmates from receiving the grants. Shortly after, inmates were also barred from receiving New York State aid for prison education. Cuomo’s program should not detract from the financial aid upon which so many deserving students rely. Rather, we hope this program will pay for itself by reducing recidivism, and thus incarceration costs, to the extent that it offsets the cost of providing inmates with a college education.

So long as it is as financially successful as the governor claims it will be, we believe this program is worthwhile to the state. The societal benefits, beyond the potential financial gain, are immense. Education is a key component to ensuring previously imprisoned individuals will reintegrate as productive members of society. Through its commitment to this program, New York State is showing its support for what Prof. Mary Katzenstein, government, calls making “corrections correctional.”