New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has put into action a plan to greatly expand college in prison offerings in the state of New York. This plan will result in one prison in each of New York’s prison regions offering college programs to inmates, in which they could earn either an associate or bachelor’s degree. While many have applauded Governor Cuomo’s efforts, including the labor-backed Working Families Party, which released a statement from their State Director Bill Lipton asserting, “We applaud the Governor’s bold initiative to combat the high rates of recidivism in New York through the power of education,” others have objected, and publicly so.
Opponents of Governor Cuomo’s prison education plan have included the following:
- U.S. Representative Christopher Collins (R-Clarence) objected, saying that not only does he oppose the prison education proposal, but that he would go so far as to introduce legislation to bar the federal government from being able to finance any college-in-prison programs. He said the prison education plan was “an insult to law-abiding citizens across our state.” He continued, “Strangely, many of these same politicians think tax dollars should be spent to give convicted criminals a free college degree.”
- Senators Mark Grisanti, Greg Ball (R-Patterson), and George Maziarz (R-Niagara County) agree with Rep. Collins, vowing to assist Rep. Collins in collecting petition signatures. All felt that the state shouldn’t be spending money to educate prisoners when there are other programs for non-prisoners which require funding. Senator Maziarz went so far as to state, “I am incensed at this proposal, as are the constituents and taxpayers who have already contacted my office in large numbers . . . My constituents can be assured that I will do all I can to see that this proposal is defeated.” Senator Ball coined the plan, “Attica University.”
- Assemblyman Kieran Michael (R,C,I of Fishkill), took a different, more reasoned approach in objecting to Gov. Cuomo’s plan. He suggested that New York state prisons cut spending by 10 percent through unsuggested means, and to then use the instant cost savings to offer financial loans to prisoners desiring to further their education in prison at the college-level. He asserted, “Throwing more and more money at a problem is never the answer.”
- Assemblyman Jim Tedisco also objected to providing free college courses in New York state prisons. He even had the gall to suggest that providing college courses to New York state prisoners would merely create “smarter criminals,” explaining, “This is definitely ‘Breaking Bad’ by potentially turning a bunch of Jesse Pinkmans into Walter Whites — all on the taxpayer’s dime.”
- Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Long Island), stated: “As Chairman of the Senate Committee on Higher Education, I am resoundingly against any use of taxpayer money for the Governor’s plan to provide free college education to prisoners.”
- While Assemblyman Marc Butler (R-Newport) presented an argument against educating prisoners based on the argument of it being the wrong time for such a proposal when so many New York residents are struggling themselves, his actions spoke much louder. His office created a website for a petition which asserts “[I]t is outrageous that the Governor has made free college degrees for convicts a priority. . . . Free college tuition for prisoners is an insult to everyone that plays by the rules and has no relief in sight.” On the website, below a photo of several African Americans in handcuffs, is the caption, “Stole a car. Robbed a bank. Shot a bystander. Got a free college education paid by YOU.”
- Jonathon Putney, St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators Chairman, too objected to Gov. Cuomo’s prison education plan. He asserted, “I would hope that the governor’s office would withdraw its proposal to offer a college education to inmates.”
- Niagara County Sheriff Jim Voutour also objected, asserting, “It’s not fair to people who follow the law[.]” He felt that prisoners should be barred from college-level education because not all law-abiding citizens have access to higher education.
While quite a political mess, Governor Cuomo’s efforts at reforming New York’s crime control policy through prison education should be supported. And it is, not only by the aforementioned Working Families Party, but also by United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a number of prominent Democrats, the Correctional Education Association, Prison Legal News, and many other prisoner education advocates, including PrisonEducation.com.
The opposition to this legislation amounts to foolhardy politics and dangerous crime control policies being promulgated by the supposedly tough-on-crime bloc. These public officials all demand that Governor Cuomo’s prison education plan be stopped, and at once. They say that it is an affront to their constituents and their fellow Americans, and by golly, they are going to introduce legislation and start petitions, and do everything else they can to put up roadblocks. And all this they do without one ounce of research supporting their position. The aforementioned public officials, thus far, haven’t presented any research concerning their public policy stances. They’ve simply trotted out the usual rhetoric supporting their anti-prison education positions. The sarcastic quips, the racist imagery, is the same old Willie Horton scare tactic that got us into the over-incarceration mess in the first place.
The facts are the facts. Prison education has proven time and time again to be the most cost-effective solution to recidivism currently available. While it costs upwards of $60,000 a year to incarcerate a prisoner in the state of New York (which currently houses approximately 54,500 inmates at 58 prison facilities), Governor Cuomo’s plan calls for a mere $5,000 per year to provide a college-level education to prisoner participants. This, as the research clearly shows, will slash recidivism rates, lower repeat crime, and result in former wrongdoers becoming employed, paying taxes, and contributing to their communities upon release from custody. These are all results we can all get behind, prisoners’ rights advocates and victims’ rights advocates alike.
What is missing from all of these politicians’ statements is an apparent regard for victims of crime and future crime victims. Prison education might feel like a slap in the face to the American — and New York — citizen. It might not feel good to provide criminals with higher levels of education, that much is clear. Providing the “gift” of education certainly doesn’t fall in line with retribution, vengeance, or revenge (and to some, the concept of justice). All of this is real, but shouldn’t be the sole focus of crime policy discussions, and legislators should know better.
Crime control discussions should focus not on our feelings, but on the facts and the research. And the research asserts that providing college-level courses to prisoners will result in less crime, reduced spending on corrections, and a plethora of other pro-social benefits. This is something every American should be able to support: reduced crime, even if through prison education programs. Educate a prisoner today and stop a crime tomorrow. It’s just that simple.