Governor Cuomo Wants College for Inmates in New York

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Posted By Eliana Osborn on January 19, 2016 at 9:49 am
Governor Cuomo Wants College for Inmates in New York

America’s incarceration rates are the highest in the world.  The Obama Administration has taken a step towards inmate education by opening Pell grants to this population.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has his own plans for prisoners in his state.

Cuomo wants inmates to be able to get a college education while in prison.  He first proposed this in 2014 but was unable to get funding from the legislature.  “Giving men and women in prison the opportunity to earn a college degree costs our state less and benefits our society more,” said Governor Cuomo in his initial announcement.

The current estimate for the prison college project is $7.5 million to fund schooling at ten state facilities, one in each region of the state.  Both associate and bachelor’s degrees will be available.  New York spends $60,000 a year housing inmates and estimates college will cost an additional $5,000 per student.

Prevent recidivism, lower prison spending over the long-term

Why provide a college education for those who have broken the law?  Some opponents argue against such a program, noting how difficult it is for all citizens to afford higher education.  The issue comes down to preventing recidivism—training inmates so they will be less likely to reoffend and return to prison. Make an investment now in college education and avoid paying that $60,000 per year for an inmate who’s likely to return to prison without it.

“The cost of corrections at each level of government has increased 660 percent from 1982 to 2006, consuming $68 billion a year, and the reduced output of goods and services of people with felonies and prison records is estimated at between $57 and $65 billion in losses,” according to the National Employment Law Project.

In a paper from Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Allison Hill explains, “Nearly half of released offenders will recidivate when not provided with educational services compared to 13% who are offered services.”  The Department of Education says that educational services for those behind bars prepare inmates for success upon release.

Currently, there are a wide variety of programs, including GED remediation and vocational training.  More advanced education, like degree programs, have been limited because of costs.  In state and federal prisons, Pell grants will now be available for credit-bearing classes.

Challenges to getting a job with a criminal record

A survey by the Society of Human Resources Management found 92 percent of large employers use criminal background checks for hiring decisions. Job screening practices that exclude applicants with criminal records disproportionately affect African-Americans and Latinos, which make up higher proportions of the prison population. This, subsequently, contributes to income and employment disparities in these communities and vicious cycles that lead to incarceration.

Former inmates face significant obstacles to getting a job once released. Their criminal records follow them, shutting the doors to many job opportunities, including low-paying, unskilled areas. Having a college education is one way Cuomo hopes to help overcome these challenges. Looking to the future, by 2020, 69% of jobs in New York will require post-secondary education, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

Ex-inmates have debt, bills to pay when they leave prison

Contrary to popular belief, going to jail is not free nor is it cheap for an inmate, who racks up debt while serving time and afterward. In addition to struggling to finding a job that will cover basic needs like food and housing, former inmates leave prison with fees to pay each month for probation. There’s also the debt of court costs and fines imposed. And in many states and counties, prisons charge inmates “pay-to-stay” daily fees to cover food, clothes, hygiene needs, and medical and dental costs.

If New York is able to enact justice system reforms, including this college access plan, more citizens will have more opportunities for a better life after leaving prison.  Speaking recently, Governor Cuomo said, “”Prisons were not supposed to be a warehouse.  It was supposed to be about rehabilitation.”  He plans to use money from bank forfeiture settlements to provide the needed funds.  Right now, 60% of New York inmates return to prison after release.  For young people, in particular, getting an education can make a difference between unemployment and a stable future.  Cost savings for correction services can be significantly impacted if education reduces the recidivism rate at all.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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