Cuomo’s College-For-Inmates Proposal Is Not Unrealistic

Governor Cuomo announced this past week that he wants to fund college education for prison inmates. On the surface this seems to be a shocking and incredible proposal that any law-abiding college student, their parents, elected officials, and the general public may find ridiculous and a complete waste of taxpayers’ money. The question; “Who wants to send a convict to college while it is ever more costly to get their own children through school?” is legitimate and appropriate.

Having worked in corrections for over 31 years, and served as the Warden of the Chautauqua County Jail from 2006-13, I have witnessed firsthand many of the changes that have occurred over the past three decades in our policy shifts in response to combat crime in this country. I would like to share some facts that may shed light on the Governor’s proposal that show that not only is it not farfetched, but is a legitimate response to a problem that is out of control, and is costing the taxpayers of New York state valuable resources that could be used for better purposes.

First, let’s look at our prison population in the United States compared to other countries around the world to determine if our policies in response to crime fare better than other countries. The United States leads the world in the number of citizens it incarcerates each year. Current figures show that base per 100,000 citizens we incarcerate 716. Russia, who we consider an oppressive governed country, only incarcerates 557. China incarcerates 170, Canada 114, the average European rate is right around 100, Scandinavian countries average 63, and Japan averages 54 per 100,000 of its citizens. There are approximately 8 million people around the world who are incarcerated. One country has over a quarter of that population behind bars – the United States. We currently have approximately 2.3 million people incarcerated in American jails and prisons. Ask yourself this question: “Why is America, the freest country in the world, incarcerating the most people in the world?” How much does it cost you, the taxpayers, to keep these people behind bars? Of those 2.3 million prisoners 700,000 will be released this year alone, and 95 percent will eventually return to society.

We spend approximately $70 billion a year to house our 2.3 million prisoners. That costs us about $31,000 per inmate. For that much money wouldn’t it make sense that we should have some rehabilitative programs and education to help these people reenter society successfully? Some of you reading this may say, “Who cares? They’re criminals. They committed crimes and should be punished, not given education programs law-abiding citizens have to pay for.” I agree with you. Jails and prisons were designed to punish criminals. That’s what we should be using our prisons for. However, along the way through history our policies have shifted and the “selective incapacitation” practice to “mass incarceration” that has seen such a drastic increase in the number of people incarcerated that would not have been imprisoned a few decades ago. Our “War on Drugs,” “get tough on crime” policies resulted in a 700 percent increase in our prison population from the 1970’s to 2000. Look at our numbers in New York state. In 1973 we had 12,500 prisoners confined. In 2000 we were over 72,000 inmates imprisoned in the state. I’m sure anyone reading this editorial can guess who footed the bill for the increase of prisoners. By 2011 that number has decreased to 56,000 prisoners. The state and country has realized policy changes are damaging not only the economies, but greatly increasing the tax burdens of our citizens to pay for this huge expansion of the prison system.

Second, inmates who are released from prison without an education earn 40 percent less income than those who have the education. It’s no coincidence that 40 percent of the inmates release from prison return within a decade. That equals 280,000 prisoners returning to prison at $85 a day. Is that a good return on your investment for NOT educating them?

In Ohio, they started programs to provide college education to prisoners. The recidivism rates (recidivism is the rate of inmates who got out of prison and returned because of new crimes) decreased by 60 percent of those inmates who completed a degree in prison. The savings to the taxpayers of Ohio is extraordinary. “A study by the Washington State Institute for Public Safety found that for every dollar spent on correctional education, the state saved $12” That is responsible government. “Another study from the University of California, LA found that a $1 million investment in incarceration prevented just 350 crimes, while the same investment in education prevents 600 crimes.” ( A study conducted by Matrix Knowledge Group assessing the costs and benefits to UK society of in-prison education found that for every $1 invested benefits were equivalent to $2.50, more than double the investment made (Matrix Knowledge Group (2009) Lifelong Learning and Crime: An Analysis of the Cost Effectiveness of In-Prison Educational and Vocational Interventions: IFLL Public Value Paper 2, Leicester, National Institute for Adult and Continuing Learning (NIACE)) Further, the programs used in Scandinavian prisons have reduced the recidivism rates to one-half to one-third of American prisons. I ask the politicians this basic question: “Should the money the taxpayers are continuously asked to pay for a correctional system be spent to reduce further expenditures, or to continue to fund inadequate programs that show little success, resulting in more taxpayer spending?” Personally, I feel it is more important to be right than to be popular.

Third, educating inmates while in prison goes far beyond an individual benefit.

In Europe, countries allocate much more resources than the United States to provide educational services for their prisoners. In fact, the Council of Europe Recommendation on Education in Prison states that “Education for prisoners should be like the education provided for similar age-groups in the outside world, and the range of learning opportunities should be as wide as possible” and the European Prison Rules state that “every prison shall seek to provide all prisoners with access to educational programmes which are as comprehensive as possible and which meet their individual needs while taking into account their aspirations. Other nations understand that if they do not provide educational programs for their prisoners they will continue to pay for their welfare while out of prison, the cost of investigating and prosecuting their future crimes, and incarcerating them over and over again.

Fourth, research shows that being employed reduces the risk of re-offending by between a 33 and 50 percent margin. With employment playing an important role in influencing the chances of a former prisoner re-offending, it is crucial to try to address prisoners’ skills gaps through the provision of learning opportunities which provide skills and competences, relevant to the (local) job market, and to enhance their employability. Programs inside our prisons and jails must provide this training and education to reduce the number of prisoners reoffending. Jobs equal less offending. When the state of Missouri introduced offender workforce programs they saw a 7 percent reduction in the recidivism rates for medium and high risk offenders. Their programs became so successful that the unemployment rates for offenders in their jurisdiction were less than the general population. In New York state, Ready, Set, Work programs initiated by Albany and Cattaraugus County Probation Departments saw 85 percent and 77 percent of the offenders who completed their programs in 2010 find and retain jobs.

Our policies have unfairly targeted minorities and people of color. While white Americans are incarcerated at a rate of 380 per 100,000, Hispanics are much higher at 966 per 100,000 people. But, most disturbing, African Americans are incarcerated at a rate of 2,207 per 100,000 citizens. (Data Source: Statistics as of June 30, 2010 and December 31, 2010 from Correctional Population in the United States and from U.S. Census Summary File 1.) Right now there are more African American males between the ages of 17-34 in some sort of correctional supervision; jail, prison, parole, probation, halfway house, or community supervision, than all of our colleges and universities combined. If you are a local politician criticizing the Governor for wanting to provide educational benefits to prisoners, then why are you not crusading for better educational opportunities for our minorities in the inner cities? Are these people not your constituents? A reason we need educational programs, and college degree programs, in prison is because we have failed to provide adequate and proper educational opportunities to the lowest socioeconomic areas in our country. That is a true tragedy. I applaud and fully support the Governor’s proposal. It is needed, it is right, and it has been proven to benefit societies in other countries. To do otherwise will only cause us to continue to through money at a system that is broken.