Skip Navigation
Regional News
Gov. Cuomo taking questions from reporters, February, 2014. NCPR File Photo: <a href="">Gov. Cuomo's office</a>, via Flickr
Gov. Cuomo taking questions from reporters, February, 2014. NCPR File Photo: Gov. Cuomo's office, via Flickr

Cuomo's prison college plan sparks bipartisan backlash

Listen to this story
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made prison reform a centerpiece of his first term, closing prisons, calling for changes to sentencing laws for sixteen- and seventeen-year olds, and cutting the use of solitary confinement. But his latest proposal, a plan to use taxpayer dollars to fund college education behind bars, has sparked a bipartisan backlash.

Cuomo says the idea will save money over time, but many lawmakers say it's unfair to law-abiding citizens who struggle to send their kids to college.

Hear this

Download audio

Share this

Explore this

Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

This debate over government funded college programs in prisons has always been emotional, but you know you're in rough territory as a politician when one of your ideas sparks a question from a reporter like this one, posed this week in Buffalo to Governor Andrew Cuomo: "What do you say to a Yoko Ono if all of a sudden Mark David Chapman says 'I want a college education'?"

Mark David Chapman, of course, murdered John Lennon in 1980; he's currently an inmate at Wende Correctional Facility in Erie County.

Governor Cuomo has tried to package the idea as a common-sense, budget cutting reform: "Forget nice. Let's talk about self-interest. You pay $60,000 for a prison cell for a year. You put a guy away for 10 years that's 600 grand. Right now, chances are almost half that when he's released he's going to come right back.

Cuomo says a college education will cost around $5,000 per year per person, big savings if it keeps that man or woman from committing new crimes or cycling back to prison. "It is cheaper," Cuomo's said, "because the recidivism rate comes way down."

College education in American prisons used to be the norm. Prisons were seen as places where troubled individuals were rehabilitated, offered job training, schooling. But in 1994, in the midst of a vicious crime wave, President Bill Clinton signed a tough law that stripped inmates of their ability to apply for Federal Pell grants.

Those same student aid grants were available to everyone – in fact, 99 percent of that student aid went to non-inmates – but critics argued inmates shouldn't be coddled. "There must be no doubt," said Clinton, "about whose side we're on. People who commit crimes should be caught, convicted, and punished. This bill puts government on the side of people who abide by the law, not those who break it.

As funding dried up, inmate education programs in state and Federal prisons were devastated. It was a clear victory for the tough-on-crime movement, but away from the spotlight, many prison experts were dismayed.

Governor Cuomo speaking about issues including his proposed plan, earlier this month at a Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus Weekend Church Service.

Gerald Gaes was lead researcher for the Federal Bureau of Prisons while those education programs were being dismantled. He says he saw firsthand the good that education could accomplish, and that he was "very disappointed" that the policy changed.

"I know several inmates personally who got their degrees and went on to become criminologists. And they're very, very good. They would not have had that opportunity. So on a personal anecdotal level, I was very disappointed."

Gaes says the research on college education cutting the number of inmates who commit new crimes isn't as clear as Governor Cuomo argues. Although education helps reduce crime and prison costs, he says it's not clear by how much. But, he says, "my professional opinion is that it is cost-effective. Designing prisons that way will have a long-term benefit for New York State."

This view is held by a wide range of prison experts, including Martin Horn, who was commissioner of New York City's prison system for six years.

He says education helps inmates after they're released – but it also helps make prisons safer for corrections officers and the men and women serving time. "Anything that keeps inmates busy is a good thing. The worst thing in prison is idleness."

Prison reform groups also support Gov. Cuomo's idea. Donna Lieberman heads the New York Civil Liberties Union: "We can't have a society where we lock people up and release them back into society in worse shape than they came in. We need to use our prisons as a mechanism to help society."

But especially in upstate New York, opposition to this latest proposal for government-funded college education has been fierce and bipartisan. Republican Senator Greg Ball described the idea as "Attica University". Speaking on the public radio program Capital Pressroom, he said that in a world of "finite resources", "we simply do not have the dollars we want to spend on a number of great programs, regardless whether they help seniors, or veterans."

That view is shared by Democratic Assemblywoman Addie Russell from the North Country, whose district includes three state prisons. She says the idea is unfair to families that don't break the law: "That is the vast majority of feedback I'm mostly getting from my constituents. Where is the relief for the rest of the law-abiding population?"

Russell also thinks any education funding spent in prisons should go for basic literacy, GED and job skills training: "I think a large part of the prison population isn't at a level where they're prepared to do college level work. If we're talking about moving the needle on recidivism, investing in the programs that will have the most impact is where I would like to invest our money before going above and beyond."

And North Country state Senator Joe Griffo issued a statement yesterday comparing college education behind bars to a Club Med vacation resort.

But Cuomo's proposal plays very differently downstate. Earlier this month, the governor outlined his prison college education program at a church service attended by members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus.

"Now we call it the Department of Corrections. You have to ask yourself, are we really correcting anything? And what are we accomplishing for all that money? We're imprisoning, we're isolating, but we're not rehabilitating the way we should, we're not correcting the way we should, we're not improving the way we should."

Cuomo's college education plan drew a standing ovation from churchgoers.

So twenty years after government-funded college education programs were dismantled in prisons, this debate over cost, fairness, rehabilitation and justice is alive once again.

It seems likely that this part of Cuomo's prison reform agenda will be the most controversial yet.


Visitor comments


NCPR is supported by:

This is a Visitor-Supported website.