Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently took a significant step to help reduce recidivism and increase public safety. Working with Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., Cuomo directed $7.5 million to colleges and universities offering courses in 17 state prisons.
Cost-conscious governors across the U.S. should follow Cuomo’s example and support college for all – including men and women behind bars.
Purely in terms of economics, college for all makes sense: College graduates earn, on average, 56 percent more than high school graduates. Roughly 65 percent of the jobs being created in the U.S. require at least some postsecondary education – that’s 36 million of the 55 million job openings expected between 2010 and 2020, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. There is an additional economic advantage to providing incarcerated people with access to a college education: It costs much more to hold people in prison, roughly $60,000 a year in New York. It only costs roughly $5,000 per year to send them to college. Programs that offer college courses to prisoners also reduce the recidivism rate, which in turn can cause the costs of incarceration to decline – allowing more money to be spent on other priorities, such as health care and infrastructure.
Among savvy public servants, it is widely recognized that college in prison programs also enhance a person’s chances for successful re-entry into society. They reduce return rates from more than 50 percent nationwide within the first year after being released. Many studies have shown that men and women who have gone to college in prison are more likely to find and succeed in jobs, reunite with their families and become involved in strengthening their communities. They also reduce violence in prisons, thereby increasing the safety of correctional personnel and other prisoners.
College in prison programs were once widely available in correctional institutions. Most programs were canceled after an amendment to the 1994 crime bill removed incarcerated men and women from eligibility for Pell Grants and state aid. The few programs that continued to operate after 1994 faced a constant struggle to raise private funds to cover their costs.
Cuomo first attempted to expand access to college in prison programs in 2014, when he proposed using state money to help support 10 college programs. That effort failed in part to strong opposition from some upstate legislators, including former state Sen. George Maziarz who said, “It is simply beyond belief to give criminals a competitive edge in the job market over law-abiding New Yorkers who forgo college because of the high cost.”
The use of the word “criminals” was strategic – no doubt an effort to bring to mind poor people and people of color. While the resistance from upstate legislators was thinly veiled as a “fairness argument,” it loses power if one supports college for all as Cuomo has.
Offering college courses in prison is not a panacea and cannot alone address all the problems created by more than 40 years of mass incarceration. We need changes in sentencing laws and other changes in criminal law. We need more alternatives to prisons for some offenders, especially the young. We need re-entry programs that can help people returning home find jobs and housing, reunite with their loved ones, adjust to life outside of prison and continue their education. But expanding college in prison programs is a significant step in the right direction, and Cuomo and Vance should be applauded for showing the way toward a better, safer life for all of us.
David Condliffe is the executive director of the Center For Community Alternatives and Ellen Condliffe Lagemann is the author of Liberating Minds: The Case For College In Prison.