Governor Andrew Cuomo took what a New York Times editorial called “a bold step” by promoting the notion that educating prisoners will stem the tide of recidivism.
On Sunday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York took a bold step to restore some common sense to this contorted debate, announcing new financing for college classes in 10 state prisons. The initiative will offer inmates the opportunity to earn either an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree over the course of two to three years.
There are two things that come of a stint in prison. A person can leave more bitter and hate-filled, learning from fellow inmates how to be a better criminal and care less about others and the law. Or, a person can leave with some hope of a law-abiding future, putting past transgressions behind him. One tends to prevent recidivism. The other does not.
But this fairly comprehensible policy existed years ago as well. Congress killed it in response to public outcry about coddling criminals and giving them more than law-abiding people receive.
Yet the same political and social forces that have driven the country’s prison boom over four decades have also worked to eliminate most government support for inmate education, including Congress’s irrational and counterproductive decision in 1994 to deny federal Pell grants to people in prison. In the aftermath, the number of college degree programs for prisoners around the country dropped from 350 to about a dozen.
There were cries when it was learned that prisoners had color TVs, because folks who weren’t in prison struggled to obtain such luxuries, and here we were handing them to people who committed crimes on a silver platter. And college education? The middle class struggled mightily to carry the burden. The poor had little hope. And prisoners were getting it for free.
The argument against giving prisoners what law-abiding people had to fight and suffer for wasn’t frivolous. Why should prisoners get what other people couldn’t? It was a fair question, and the answer that prisoners would have a hope of leading a productive life wasn’t sufficiently satisfying to overcome the disparity of treatment.
So there were two reactions to the cries of anguish: give non-prisoners the same luxury of an education, or deny it to prisoners. Congress chose the latter. It was cheaper.
Cuomo’s resurrection of this plan, and his arguments in favor of it, is a legitimate use of resources, despite the complaints of others.
Mr. Cuomo was quick to point out that the cost — $5,000 per inmate per year — is a fraction of the $60,000 New York spends annually to house a prisoner. But even more compelling is the weight of decades of data: According to a RAND study released last summer reviewing 30 years of research, inmates who participated in educational programs had a substantially reduced risk of reoffending within three years than those who did not.
This, of course, only shows one side of the cost equation. The cost of crime, of reoffending, of the suffering of victims to the prosecution to the post-conviction warehousing, is way higher than the cost of giving prisoners an alternative to crime to survive. It’s an excellent investment for the prisoners and society, even if it smarts that prisoners get something others don’t.
But since 1994, the world has become a far less forgiving place. Between the box, the pervasive use of background checks, the internet’s permanent record of wrongdoing and the pervasive intolerance toward anyone convicted of a crime, the Halcyon days when an education was enough to give a person a good chance at a productive, law-abiding life are behind us.
Even without the stigma of a conviction, an education no longer assures a person of a productive future. The jobs just aren’t there, as any college grad will tell you. And don’t ask law school grads unless you have a lot of time to chat. It’s bad out there, and that’s for kids with no mark against them.
Prisoners? Ex-cons? Even if they’re not on one of the registries we’ve grown to adore, just so we know who to hate enough and keep far away, an education alone isn’t going to help. They need a future where they can earn a living, take a vested interest in society and harbor expectations that hard work and obeying the law will pay off. We can’t give them that.
Does that mean Cuomo’s plan is wrong? Not at all. It’s just not enough. It’s one piece of the puzzle to stem recidivism, and requires the other pieces to fall into place as well before the rationale behind it makes sense. The other two pieces, that we end the stigma of conviction so that ex-cons won’t be shunned and excluded from society, and that there are good jobs for them so there is an alternative to crime as a way of surviving.
Without the other two pieces, the money spent on education is, sadly, thrown down the toilet. Worse still the resentment it will build in prisoners who work hard to use this opportunity, to gain a college degree, only to learn that it’s illusory and leads to no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, will engender more bitterness toward society. That’s not good.
And before all the haters explain that prisoners are evil, deserve nothing and should all be left in holes to die, these are your friends, neighbors and children too. Some are pretty bad dudes, but most are pretty ordinary, nice people. At least when they went in.
If it makes you feel better to pretend they’re all mass murderers and child-rapists, knock yourself out. But the truth is, they’re pretty much like anyone else, save for the lack of guidance and opportunity to have a life like everyone else. If you met them, you would probably like them. I have and I do.