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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: The Debate Over Educating Prisoners

Recently the Obama Administration took a step to try to deal with one of the nation’s most intractable problems: how to reduce the recidivism rate of those released from prisons.  There are approximately 1.5 million people in state or federal prisons.  Those prisoners are serving time because they have been convicted of a serious crime.  But the question is – what happens when their time is up and they are released back into our communities?

The statistics are grim:  Despite prisons being called “correctional facilities,” they do a dismal job in turning lives around.  According to the U.S. Department of Justice, nationwide about two-thirds of released state prisoners were re-arrested within three years and three-quarters within five.  Prison is a revolving door.

And it’s a revolving door that impacts certain communities worse than others.  According to the Cuomo Administration, nearly half of New York inmate population is African American, nearly one quarter is Hispanic, and nearly one quarter is white. 

The revolving door too often sends recently-discharged inmates into communities in which they will commit a future crime.  As a result, neighborhoods are less safe and people’s lives are too often ruined.  The currently high recidivism rate helps no one, so what should be done?

The Obama Administration recently unveiled a pilot program that will allow Pell Grants (the federal college subsidy program for the poor) to be issued to a small number of colleges to offer college courses to eligible inmates.  While prisoners can sometimes get access to educational courses now, they are ineligible for the federal Pell Grant program as well as the New York State Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).  Since the vast majority of inmates are low income, they usually cannot afford college courses while in prison.

Why offer college classes to prisoners?  The connection between higher education and reduced recidivism has been well established.  In one study, individuals who earned an Associate’s degree were 62 percent less likely to return to prison than those who did not. 

A study conducted by the University of California at Los Angeles found that “[a] $1 million investment in incarceration will prevent about 350 crimes, while that same investment in education will prevent more than 600 crimes. Correctional education is almost twice as cost effective as incarceration.”

The Cuomo Administration has cited benefits to educating prisoners as well.  The Administration has found that formerly-incarcerated people who did not take classes while in prison were almost four times more likely to be re-arrested than those who did.

Thus, the Obama Administration’s plan.  The reason that it is a pilot program is that under a twenty year old law, the Congress prohibited Pell Grants for prisoners.  The President’s pilot program is allowed, according to the Administration, because of a provision in the Higher Education Act that allows the Education Department to study the effectiveness of a student-aid program without approval from Congress.

Similar efforts have been tried (unsuccessfully) in New York State.  Earlier this year, the Cuomo Administration urged passage of an initiative to give incarcerated individuals the opportunity to earn a college degree through funding college classes in prisons across New York.  That plan failed

Not surprisingly, there has been opposition to these types of reforms.  Some in Congress argue that the Administration is operating outside of the law.  Others – both at the national and statewide levels – argue that it is not right for prisoners to get financial aid, when the cost of going to college is skyrocketing which has led to a trillion dollar college debt.

And they do have a point.  In New York State, while the governor offered his own plan to help incarcerated individuals take college classes, his Administration has been advancing plans to annually hike tuition – thus driving up the cost of going to college for all.

But the debate is not really about how to keep college affordable, it’s about how our society treats those behind bars.  It is obvious that the current approach has not worked.  Punishment alone will not reduce the nation’s recidivism rate.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.  

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