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Bard College Initiative Inspires Governor Cuomo's Education In Prison Proposal

Bard Prison Initiative

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo last week proposed a program to provide college education in prisons across the state. The proposal, which has garnered strong opposition and support, is based upon a more than decade-old program out of Dutchess County.

Governor Cuomo announced his proposal at the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus February 16. The idea, he says, is to break the cycle of crime and save tax dollars on the cost of imprisonment. The initiative would provide college-level education at 10 state prisons.

“Sounds like a bold idea.  Sounds almost crazy, doesn’t it?” Cuomo said. “Well, in 1999, there was a crazy student and a crazy college that said they were going to try it. And Bard College started to provide college courses in six maximum and medium security prisons across the state. And you know what happened? It worked.”

That so-called crazy former Bard College student is Max Kenner, founder and executive director of the Annandale-on-Hudson-based Bard Prison Initiative.

“If this goes through, New York will have the most comprehensive, most thoughtful, most meaningful educational opportunities for people in prison of any state in the country,” Kenner says.

Cuomo says the state currently spends $60,000 per year on each prisoner, citing a 40 percent recidivism rate, compared with Bard’s 4 percent. He says the cost of providing one year of college education per inmate is about $5,000. Kenner says the benefits go further.

“So the government talked at length about recidivism. That’s all true – fewer people commit crime, fewer people return to prison,” Kenner says. “But I would one-up him and say the following, which is not only will fewer people be on Medicaid and need public housing, right, or perhaps go back to prison and be of enormous cost to the taxpayer, but many alumni will become taxpaying citizens and contribute to the pot rather than take from it. No fiscal conservative can oppose this program and pass the laugh test.”

The governor’s proposal has staunch opponents – mainly Republican state lawmakers, some of whom say the money and effort put forth in such a prison education initiative should go toward alleviating the student loan debt crisis, or increasing access to financial aid to traditional students. Some Democrats have also broken with the governor. Bard’s Kenner says he hears the following misconception about Cuomo’s proposal.

“Without a fraction of a doubt the misconception is that this is a) some kind of handout; or b) will cost money,” says Kenner.

Kenner says he has been lobbying for such a program for 15 years, and was pleasantly surprised that an elected official has followed through with a proposal.

“I, not three months ago, ten years ago ran out of any optimism that any elected official would lift a finger for us or wasn’t lying to us. It’s our job, it’s what I’m paid to do is go to Albany and go to Washington and make the case for these programs because it’s the right public policy,” Kenner says. “So, yes, were we pushing the Administration to do this? Absolutely, but we’ve done that, this is the fourth governor for whom we’ve done this, and I didn’t expect it to come to this.”

He adds, “It is an extraordinary thing for New York State and the willingness of Andrew Cuomo and the government of the State of New York to take national leadership on this issue, which is politically volatile but absolute common sense, is really something that we should be proud of as New Yorkers.”

The state intends to issue a Request for Proposal starting March 3 to solicit responses from educational associations. The details, according to a Cuomo spokesman, are being hammered out. Kenner says he is optimistic the details will reflect the following.

“The most important thing is that the programs the state supports are ones of genuine quality equal to what happens at the colleges outside of prison,” says Kenner. “If this becomes “prison college” or Attica U., as some of the opposition likes to call it, right, this is not worth the public investment. This is worth the investment if independent colleges have a genuine place within the public prison system.”

Kenner notes that if Bard wants a chance to receive state funding for its prison initiative, it would have to apply via the RFP. Bard currently depends on private support. Kenner says the RFP details will dictate whether Bard applies.

New York is not the only state looking to reduce recidivism. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick Thursday announced criminal justice initiatives intended to help his state reduce recidivism by 50 percent over the next five years.

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