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March 01, 2014

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announces his initiative to provide college classrooms in New York prisons. (Photo courtesy of Cuomo's press office.)

New York is looking to reach out to a population that doesn't often come to mind when talking about increasing access to higher education - prison inmates.

Earlier this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced an initiative to provide college classes to those incarcerated in his state's prisons. The plan would offer classes in 10 different prisons and inmates could receive an associate or a bachelor's degree in two and a half, to three years time.

In the 1990's, Congress cut  Pell Grant funding for prisoners, eliminating federal funds for inmate education and beginning a trend that led to a drastic decrease in prison education programs across the country.

Ry Rivard with Inside Higher Ed wrote about the issue Friday: 

"Now, Cuomo has proposed a plan -- drawing fire from many -- that he says will save money by giving prisoners a better chance to find jobs and stay out of trouble once they are released. The federal and state moves in the 1990s left many prisons without any higher education offerings, except for relatively small programs offered by private groups. Cuomo's plan is an unusual effort by a powerful politician to put real money into college programs behind bars."

According to a press release from Cuomo's office, "those who earn a college degree while in prison are less likely to end up behind bars again, therefore decreasing the number of inmates," and, ultimately, saving the state's dollars.

But do the facts bear that out?

Research from the Rand Corporation suggests they do. Their study found that inmates who participated in education programs while incarcerated were 43 percent less likely to go back to jail after release.

Educational programs ring out at a per-inmate cost of $5,000. That's in comparison to the $60,000 the state of New York pays to keep one person in jail for one year.

In Massachusetts, Boston University has a Prison Education Program that offers classes taught by BU staff in four different state prisons. Under the program, inmates have the ability to earn a bachelor's degree. The program is competitive, with participants selected after an interview and exam.

The problem, no surprise, is money. In an environment where states are defunding public higher education, critics are quick to point out that spending money on educating inmates isn't the priority.

As Inside Higher Ed wrote:

"Opponents of the plan, including state lawmakers with prisons in their districts, say law-abiding New Yorkers can barely afford college while the governor is trying to give a free education to the state’s crooks. “Rewarding criminal behavior with free college education reinforces their actions and makes them smarter criminals,” Assemblyman James Tedisco, a Republican, said in a statement. “This is definitely ‘Breaking Bad’ by potentially turning a bunch of Jesse Pinkmans into Walter Whites – all on the taxpayer’s dime.”

Watch Cuomo's announcement:


New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his initiative during the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus weekend.

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