Published March 6, 2014
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, associate professor in the UB Law School.
Miller has extensively studied and filmed inside New York State prisons, in particular Attica Correctional Facility. Her academic conference, documentary and 40th-year reunion of 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 confinement.
“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 is astounding.”
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 reduce 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, says the average cost to state taxpayers to incarcerate a prisoner is $60,000 per year.
“College coursework appears to be not just the right thing to do, but a cost-effective means of reducing crime,” she says. “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 such academic disciplines as psychology, philosophy and literature that expand their minds — well, they see ‘past’ prison,” she 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 priorities.”
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 already have 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.
The topic of a broken judicial system and exorbitant prison maintenance costs makes a compelling argument for providing educational opportunities for prison inmates, especially when valuable research shows a dramatic decrease in re-incarceration. I question, however, Gov Cuomo's plan to freely offer the opportunity of college education to people who are currently paying their debt to society through incarceration.
Higher education is a heavy investment that the average student must take on with loans, grants, scholarships or hard earned money, and I do not see how it is fair to give inmates a better educational advantage than the average law-abiding citizen. This plan is essentially offering prisoners the same educational benefits afforded U.S. military members and even these benefits are conditional upon a service member's type of discharge; benefits are revoked if a military member is dishonorably discharged.
Why not provide a deferment of payment on low interest loans until a given time period after release from prison and gainful employment is obtained? This plan could include conditions and penalties regarding re-incarceration as well. It's not a bad idea to remind inmates they are being offered an opportunity and that opportunity should come with some responsibility, especially when it comes to using taxpayer money as funding.
Gov. Cuomo's plan to use taxpayer money to fund college courses for prison inmates may seem like a "good bet," but let us remember whose money is being placed on the gambling table, and ensure that the bet is adequately hedged to protect taxpayers' so-called investment.