Cuomo proposal to bring higher ed to state prisons

(Devon Nitz | The Oswegonian)
(Devon Nitz | The Oswegonian)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in late February a launch of a statewide program that would fund education in prisons so inmates could receive a college degree.

The program is set to begin in the fall and will take place at 10 state prisons, one for each region of New York.

Cuomo’s hope is that the program will help decrease the state’s high rates of recidivism, those who turn back to crime after release. Right now, it costs $60,000 per year to incarcerate one person and about $3.6 billion in total costs for prisons, with a 40 percent chance of an inmate becoming a repeat offender, a Cuomo spokesperson told CNN.

“Albert Einstein had that famous definition of insanity, which is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result,” Cuomo said at the news conference where he revealed his plan. “But for years, my friends, we have been doing the same thing over and over, and we have little to show for it. It’s time we try something new.”

The program would offer both associates and bachelor’s degrees and  would generally take two-and-a-half to three years for inmates to complete. The state issued a request for proposal on Monday that began the recruitment process for various college professors. Some college students see the plan as unfair.

“The governor should be pushing forth bills that would actually help students that are trying to get their degrees because they want to be successful and have a drive to really make something of themselves,” Oswego State junior and political science major Gabbi Reimann said. “I don’t get any federal aid and I work several jobs so I can afford my college education. I have obeyed the law and never run into any trouble, yet I’m not on the governors ‘list’ to be helped financially. I think the governor’s plan is skewed.”

Reimann also said that there are a lot of college students, like herself, who don’t get financial aid from the federal government and spend their time at school working multiple jobs to raise enough money to continue pursuing their education.

“I think it is ridiculous,” senior and history major Marc Gummerson said. “Again, [Cuomo] punishes those who work hard to get ahead in life to cater to the desires of those who offer no contribution to society. He punishes those who make a life for themselves.”

Cuomo’s plan is not altogether a new development however. New York State has provided education for prisoners in the past, until in 1995 when then Gov. George Pataki dismantled college prison programs by taking away state aid for tuition. Pell grants, which provide aid to college students today were also available for prison inmates from the 1970s to 1994, when Congress and the Clinton administration cut them.

Since 2007, the New York State Department of Corrections has partnered with colleges, including Cornell University and Bard College, to offer privately-funded degree programs at 22 prisons. In this program, which Cuomo hopes to expand in his recent agenda, some 500 inmates were educated and 250 received degrees. Of those, only four percent became repeat offenders, according to CNN. It cost $5,000 a year to fund one college education through the Bard program.

“Not to sound like a conservative tin-hat wearer, it is part of the liberal left’s ‘progressive agenda,’” Gummerson said. “They care only for the poor and downtrodden. They neglect the middle class to the point where we are nearing extinction. That being said, the Republicans neglect us as well, preferring to cater to the wealthy who can line their pockets come election season.”

According to the Department of Corrections, the governor’s plan has been misconceived as a program that will automatically provide access to a college degree for every inmate. Each inmate is thoroughly vetted through a rigorous application process. The department argues that current inmates will be released eventually and those who are academically talented and prepared for college should still have the right to pursue a degree-qualified job after being released.

Some are accusing the governor of playing politics in this election year. Since 2011, Cuomo has been a critic of New York State’s expensive corrections program, which cost $2.9 billion last year, according to Inside Higher Ed. In 2013’s State of the State address, he said that prison facilities should not be used as economic development in the depressed regions of the state, saying that “an incarceration program is not an employment program.”

The discussion of this issue is already facing backlash from some of the potential selected areas for the program to take place. The Board of Supervisors of Ontario County voted Thursday night on a resolution calling on Cuomo to withdraw the prison tuition plan.

“I think that the governor should have has his consultants poll more of his constituents before he came out with such a bold plan,” Reimann said. “I think he has angered many New Yorkers, although his intentions are genuinely to help those who need some re-tracking back on a sound path in life.”

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