August 24, 2017

Cornell Aims to Increase Enrollment in Prison Education Program

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When Governor Andrew Cuomo assigned $7.3 million in a grant to Cornell and five other New York colleges to accommodate an additional 500 to 600 inmates for college-level in-prison classrooms, he may have been too ambitious. Cornell, which received roughly one sixth of the money earmarked for colleges, will increase annual capacity by only 50 inmates.

Although The New York Times reported that the entire grant was awarded to universities, only $5 million dollars was actually awarded to colleges. The other $2 million is dedicated to monitoring the educated inmates after release, according to Prof. Rob Scott, executive director of the Cornell Prison Education Program.

“The state has been using the number 7.3 [million] as the total, but only $5 million was available for grants to universities to provide college in prison,” Scott said. “The other $2.3 million is paying for an external evaluator function, to hire some contractors to monitor the results.”

Scott noted that the high cost of this “evaluator functions” is justified, because “if you want to do five to six years of research on hundreds of people all over the state, it’s going to be a big budget.”

CPEP will receive $750 thousand from the state government but the University has not disclosed the precise allocation of the received grant yet.

“Where the exact dollar ends up is not always the most exciting thing to find out,” Scott said. “But Cornell has pledged to increase our enrollment by 50 students per year during the period of the grant. … Whether the money is being used to pay for books or students or travels or for keeping lights on, under this grant we will be expanding by 50 students”

Scott added that increasing annual enrollment by 50 inmates is a significant milestone for CPEP, boosting the in-prison student population taught by Cornell faculty by two thirds.

“Around this time last year, we would have had a student body of around 130, maybe 150. We are going to begin the fall with north of 200,” Scott said.

But in order to achieve Governor Cuomo’s goal of accommodating 500 to 600 inmates, all participating colleges must accommodate 83 additional inmates on average, a drastic expansion that may not be financially feasible according to Scott.

“Even if you include the whole [grant] number of 7.3 million, if you divide one Cornell tuition into that, how many people would that pay for? And they want to have 2,500 people for six years? The main public news story about colleges lately is that they are expensive,” Scott said. “If you get 50 new people [annually] enrolled in college, that’s a good deal.”

Furthermore, Scott added that addressing the limited number of educational spaces in prison is just as crucial as addressing financial constraints on prison education programs.

“I would say that funding and scale of school building in prison are the two biggest constraints,” he said. “If there [are] only 10 classes in prison, and half of them are being used by high school equivalency courses, than you can only do five classes. Even if you wanted to offer 10 there is no way to do it.”

However, access to in-prison education is crucial in reintegrating inmates back into society, according to Scott. Only four out of 20 former inmates who completed a year’s worth of CPEP classes were reincarcerated after parole and many have seen drastic improvements in quality of life.

“Two people who went through our programs last year are now working at law firms as paralegals,” Scott said. “This is not the normal expected job someone gets after being released from a high security prison. I would find it almost impossible that they would have been hired by the law firms if it were not for them being involved in college.”

Additionally, two of the four people reincarcerated were only sent back for “technical violations.”

“You are not allowed to have alcohol while on parole, even as an adult, and you can be sent to prison for that,” Scott said. “We are sending back to prison people who are not harming people or property, they have a college education, a good job, paying taxes, but we put them back into prison because they have technical violations.”

Scott argued that “college, as a prison reform, is not sufficient” and that “we also need parole reform,” if inmates are to reintegrate into society.