Educating Prisoners, A Third Of An Answer

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.


10 comments on “Educating Prisoners, A Third Of An Answer

  1. John Neff

    Setting up barriors to re-entry is very popular with the tough-on-crime faction because the punishment never ends. The legilators like it because they think it does not cost the state anything and the cost is shifted to the private sector.

    The legislators are wrong because if a convict can’t get a decent job they cannot support their family and they don’t pay their share of the taxes and the state has to support their famiy and get by with reduced tax income.

  2. Mike Paar

    Perhaps former inmates would be better served if Cuomo would introduce legislation as some states, such as Indiana, have recently done which allows convicts to have their criminal records hidden to all but law enforcement agencies. The price tag is greatly reduced and few can argue this wouldn’t be successful in aiding employment for convicts.

    1. AlphaCentauri

      I wonder how well it works out in practice. A friend of mine is trying to get a conviction expunged from her record, and when she got her official criminal record, she was surprised to see that it didn’t include the stuff that employers were telling her about when they did background checks. Employers get their information from private information dealers, not the police. Those private companies hoover up any information they can get, whether the charges stuck or not, because the worse the histories they deliver, the more employers appreciate the service.

      1. SHG Post author

        It’s impossible to prevent private background checking companies from providing false, erroneous, confused (i.e., the wrong Steve Smith) information, since it’s in their interest to turn stuff up, but if it’s cut off at the official source instead of being used as a revenue generator, it would be a huge improvement. It might go a long way in alerting businesses that these companies cannot get access to accurate info, and put an end to using their services.

        1. John Neff

          I agree that it is impossible to prevent companies from selling information collected from “official sources”. The trend is too put more raw unverified data on the web promptly rather than waiting until the accused has a chance to clear things up.

          I tried to get my Sheriff to only post data on the web for people that had been released from jail but that did not work. However he does wait a few days before the posting the data.

  3. UltravioletAdmin

    I wish the concept of paying your debt to society was still taken serious. Many young criminals did something stupid, but bad luck or poor connections meant they did serious time. A politico might of done something as bad or worse, but got off because their cocaine was powder, and got to use the experience as a come to Jesus moment in their speeches.

    Ugh it’s counter productive. It’s costly, and stupid, yet it’s politically hard to do the thing all the studies say work. California’s arguably worse, and we’re still trying to make our death penalty system ‘work’.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’ve discussed the “paying your debt to society” concept numerous times here. I’m told that my view is quaint. It only seems to resonate with a select audience.

  4. darrtl

    “learning from fellow inmates how to be a better criminal ”

    Do you honestly believe you are going to learn to be a ‘better’ criminal, learning from other criminals WHO ARE IN PRISON?
    really !!!!

    These people are in prison because they are freaking hopeless criminals, I guess taking ‘crime’ lessons from criminals who failed at crime (and are therefore in prison) could only work towards helping law enforcement, with the perpetuation of ‘the school for stupid and failed criminals’, you already have to be ‘one of them’ before you are allowed to enrol !

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