U.S. college programs for incarcerated students were largely defunded in the 1990s. At the time, it was seemingly great news for “tough on crime” advocates, but in 2014, a new debate erupted out of New York state. Last February, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed an initiative to both educate New York’s prison population and save taxpayers money. It costs $60,000 per year to house an inmate in prison, and it costs an estimated $5,000 per year to provide higher education. “Right now, chances are almost half, that once he’s released, he’s going to come right back,” explained Cuomo. With the country’s high rates of recidivism, solutions that reduce that rate are the best method for reducing overall costs.
Ensuring that former inmates are educated and have the skills to give back to their communities may seem like a no-brainer, but these programs face extraordinary resistance. The common argument against prison education is that while law-abiding college students are struggling, taxpayers don’t see the fairness in paying to educate criminals. However, prison experts argue that public-funded prison education programs actually stand to help tax-paying citizens save money. Gerald Gaes, who served as an expert on college programs for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the 1990s, says the key is reducing the number of inmates who break the law and wind up back in expensive prison cells.
A 2013 joint study by the RAND Corporation and the Department of Justice found that prisoners who participated in education programs, such as GED education, college courses, and other types of training, were 43% less likely to return to prison after their release. The report, entitled “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education,” was the largest-ever analysis of correctional educational studies, and the findings indicate that prison education programs are cost effective. According to the research, a $1 investment in prison education reduces incarceration costs by $4 to $5 during the first three years after an inmate’s release.
College programs in prisons are already demonstrating the strong impact of education on recidivism rates. Nationwide, the three-year rate of recidivism is nearly 50%. The Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison has spent 15 years facilitating college programs for New York inmates. Of the 168 graduates of this program who were released from prison, the three-year recidivism rate is less than 1%. At the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) program in upstate New York, just 2.5% of students who completed a degree returned to prison.
The Bard Prison Initiative began in 2001 and currently enrolls more than 300 incarcerated students. BPI courses are taught in the prisons by Bard faculty, where incarcerated students are held to the same rigorous standards as on-campus students. In an interview featured on 60 Minutes, BPI student Joe Bergamini says, “A vocational training will teach you how to do something, but it doesn’t teach you how to think. And I think that’s a problem that a lot of men in prison have is that they’re not thinking. They’re reacting. And a vocational program might give you skills to have a job, but it’s not going to give you skills to have a life.”
In early 2015, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, one of the most influential conservative figures in the state, showed his support for prison education by delivering a speech at BPI’s twelfth commencement ceremony.
According to Attorney General Eric Holder,
“We have an opportunity and an obligation to use smart methods — and advance innovative new programs — that can improve public safety while reducing costs. As it stands, too many individuals and communities are harmed, rather than helped, by a criminal justice system that does not serve the American people as well as it should. This important research is part of our broader effort to change that.”
Holder’s comments highlight the broader ethical and practical concerns fueling the push for prison education. Aside from cutting costs, college programs in prisons stand to promote public safety and real opportunities for rehabilitation in America’s prisons.
When he publicly announced his plan, Governor Cuomo said, “Let’s use common sense, the economic cost, the human cost — let’s invest and rehabilitate people so they have a future. That’s what works.” In the eyes of many citizens, Cuomo’s plan was just that — common sense, and he received tremendous support upon making his announcement, including the support of a majority of New Yorkers. However, it took less than two months before he encountered political resistance causing him to back down on the use of public funds for the program.
The common cry that correctional education takes money from law-abiding taxpayers and gives it to criminals resounds in the media, but it’s unlikely that this argument originated with the average American citizen. U.S. prisons are profitable in their current state. Because of this, many individuals and groups, with special interests at stake, would stand to benefit from perpetuating the idea that college education in prison is “too controversial.”
Assemblyman Daniel J. O’Donnell, a Manhattan Democrat and the chairman of the Correction Committee, said prison superintendents repeatedly requested that he push to expand the college offerings in their facilities. “The people who run the prisons want it,” he said. “The prisoners’ lives are improved. The prisons are made safer. So who exactly is opposed to this?” Based on the findings in the RAND study, the average American stands to save money, in addition to supporting the reform of a hurting criminal justice system.
Recently, there has been some encouraging news for prison college programs. By bringing new research and successful programs to the public eye, Cuomo may have helped pave the way for new endeavors. While his plan ultimately failed to gain traction, numerous advocacy groups for correctional education continue to push for support and reform. The Vera Institute for Justice’s Pathways Project is in the second year of its $10 million, five-year initiative, and recently, the Education Department announced students in juvenile facilities can now qualify for Pell Grants. Advocates hope steps like these are positive indicators for the future of prison education.