BUFFALO, N.Y. – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposal to
grant college degrees to prisoners behind bars is a good bet to
break the cycle of a broken system with out-of-control costs and
far- too-many repeat offenders, says Teresa A. Miller, a professor
in the University at Buffalo Law School.
Miller has extensively studied and filmed inside New York State
prisons, in particular Attica Correctional Facility. Miller’s
academic conference, documentary and 40th year reunion on the
Attica prison riots attracted national attention because it brought
together former prison officials and prisoners for the first time
since the 1971 riot.
“The single most important factor today driving the reform
of harsh criminal punishment is the exorbitant cost of maintaining
a broken system,” Miller says. “Currently, states are
looking to reform the parole system, push college courses into
prisons and decrease the heavy reliance of prisons on isolated
“When you consider that an inmate simply participating in
a college program reduces his likelihood of reoffending after
release by 46 percent, the impact of college coursework is
impressive. When you consider that an inmate who earns a
college degree in prison reduces his likelihood of reoffending from
a national average of 60 percent to a mere 5.6 percent, the impact
According to media reports, the governor plans to pursue the
idea despite heavy criticism from skeptical taxpayers and
Republican opponents. The governor cited studies concluding that
education programs for prisoners drastically reduces recidivism,
providing a strong incentive for prisoners and taxpayers alike.
Miller, whose extensive visits behind Attica prison walls have
become detailed documentaries into the destructive forces preying
on inmates and prison officials alike, said the average cost to
state taxpayers to incarcerate a prisoner was $60,000 per year.
“College coursework appears to be not just the right thing
to do, but a cost-effective means of reducing crime,” says
Miller. “For every $1 invested in education in prison,
taxpayers save $2 in re-incarceration costs.”
As someone who has worked for decades with people incarcerated
in New York State prisons, Miller says she sees “a palpable
difference” between prisoners who take college-level courses
and those who do not.
“Those prisoners exposed to academic such disciplines as
psychology, philosophy and literature that expand their
minds— well, they see ‘past’ prison,” says
“Rather than live in the ‘here and now’ of
cellblock social drama like so many young men and women who are
locked up, these folks develop an awareness of a broader world of
ideas and experiences that reorder their
Miller says time after time, prisoners who gain a broader
perspective of their situation through college courses are easier
to manage, and far less likely to get into trouble.
Most perks have already been eliminated from a prisoner’s
routine, Miller says. So, corrections officers often have very few
ways to offer incentives for good behavior, beyond fear,
intimidation and beatings.
“What type of prisoner would you prefer to return to the
streets?” she asks.