Education is enlightenment, and the plan Gov. Cuomo announced last week to offer free college courses to inmates at 10 state prisons is an enlightened policy. It’s the best way to rehabilitate prisoners, which helps not only them and their families, but the rest of us.
In fact, prisoners who wanted to improve themselves and change their lives, to get a job and become productive citizens upon release, used to have the opportunity. Until the mid-1990s, Pell grants were available from the federal government and TAP (Tuition Assistance Program) grants from New York state.
But Congress foolishly ended the Pell grants for prisoners in 1994 and Gov. George Pataki did the same with TAP grants shortly thereafter. The thinking then was that this was coddling criminals and it was unfair to provide them something free that law-abiding citizens were struggling to pay for. And it remains the thinking of some Republicans in the state Legislature who have already stated their opposition to Cuomo’s plan.
But whether viewed in terms of penology or public safety, educating prisoners is money well spent. If it’s a gift to them, it’s also a gift to ourselves, as we are spared another crime at that inmate’s hands and the cost of locking him up again. The cost to house an inmate for a year is $60,000 vs. $5,000 to educate him.
In fact, studies have found that the recidivism rate (the number of released prisoners who commit further crimes and wind up back behind bars) drops dramatically as education level increases. The recidivism rate in New York state is 40 percent. Studies of prisoners in similar programs who have earned a college education show a recidivism rate of 4 percent.
In 2001, New York state acknowledged the value of education for prisoners, and provided a strong incentive to study, when it made progress toward the GED a condition of parole. It’s a mistake to stop at the high school level. Prisoners should be encouraged to keep going and take college courses, which Cuomo’s proposal would allow them to do.
Lawmakers must approve the plan in the budget for it to take effect, and they should. Education not only provides marketable skills, but has a broadening and civilizing effect. It goes beyond mere punishment to rehabilitation, which should be the ultimate goal of prison policy.