Andrew Cuomo is Right about College in Prison

Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times

Finally.

According to CBS, Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants New York to start providing college classes to inmates in 10 state prisons. All issues of civility and compassion aside, the evidence in favor of such a move is overwhelming. Here is a fragment of a paper I’ve been working on which presents evidence in support of Cuomo’s proposal. (It’s in MLA format, so there are no hyperlinks. Sorry!)

“Community College Classes for New York Prison Inmates: Why They Make Sense for Everyone”

First of all, offering classes to eligible inmates makes good financial sense. A three credit class at my community college costs $420 for New York residents, and the total yearly cost is estimated to be $8,750, a price which includes such variables as “Personal,” “Board,” and “Transportation” (“College Costs”). Meanwhile, according to a 2009 article in The New York Times, “The annual cost to keep someone in prison varies by state, and the type of institution, but the typical cost cited by states is about $35,000, said Peggy Burke of the Center for Effective Public Policy, a nonprofit group that works with local governments on criminal justice matters” (Steinhauer 1). Also, the 2007-2008 Base Level State Tax Request for all SUNY community colleges was just over $425 million (“Budget Request” 53), whereas the Executive Budget for criminal justice and related programs for that same time period was nearly $4 billion (“Keeping New York Safe”).

The Attica program is fully in line with the state’s effort to save money in this area. As stated on New York’s Division of the Budget web site,

New York’s prison population is falling and recidivism rates have improved. The key challenge for our State is to preserve these trends, and to do so in a fiscally responsible manner. We must look carefully at our current use of resources, and whether we can invest them in a more efficient and targeted manner to improve on these results. (“Keeping New York Safe”)

According to the same site, over 28,000 inmates were scheduled to be released back into the general population during the following year. If the goal is to keep these people out of prison, and help them become contributing members of society, then the Attica program is exactly the efficient and targeted use of resources that the state is looking for. The cost benefit to all New Yorkers seems clear.

But does prison education really affect recidivism? The available research shows that it does. An article by James S. Vacca in The Journal of Correctional Education, titled “Educated Prisoners Are Less Likely to Return to Prison,” provides numerous examples of the success of prisoner education. A study done in Oklahoma, for example, showed that “25% of the inmates who received vocational training in prison returned to prison following their release. This was compared to a 77% recidivism rate for the general population.” In Ohio, the rate was 18% for those who were in college programs, compared with 40% for those who were not. And in Canada, “inmates who completed at least two college courses had 50 percent lower recidivism rate than the norm.”

Another article, by Dr. John Garmon, president of Vista Community College in Berkeley, CA, reports on a study by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, which found that “inmates who take college classes while in prison are four times more likely to stay out of trouble when they are released,” and that “7.7 percent of those who took college courses returned to prison, compared to 29.9 percent of those who did not.”

While it’s no surprise that people with a degree are better able to find work, and thus have a better chance of staying out of prison, the low recidivism rates might also reflect a high level of motivation among inmates who seek out education. A New York Department of Correctional Services report, entitled “Follow-Up Study of Offenders Who Earned High School Equivalency Diplomas (GEDs) While Incarcerated in DOCS,” shows some interesting statistics in this regard. Of those who entered and left incarceration with no high school degree, 38% returned within three years; of those who already had such a degree when they were incarcerated, 36.5% returned;  and among those who earned a GED while incarcerated, the rate falls to 31.2% (Kim 3). The conclusion of the report states:

The finding of this study is consistent with previous research on correctional education. Among inmates first released from NYS DOCS in 2005 due to parole releases, conditional releases, or maximum expirations of sentence, those who earned a GED while incarcerated returned to custody at a significantly lower rate than offenders who did not earn a GED or those who earned a degree before admission. This finding was consistent across gender and age. (Kim 2)

Another study, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education and reported in the Journal of Correctional Education, found that “prisoners with a GED scored higher in reading skills than persons in the general population with the equivalent education” (Harlow 1). According to the article, when asked to explain the findings,

78% of faculty responses related to student motivation and commitment…The student responses closely tracked those from the faculty survey with 53% of students reporting. They indicated that differences in performance were due to high levels of motivation and commitment and fewer distractions (33%)… Finally, when asked why they enrolled in college courses, inmates noted career goals (92%), self satisfaction (84%), intellectual stimulation (74%), and post release employment (65%) as the top four reasons for participation, reasons which suggest that the prison students were highly motivated. (Harlow 3)

While teachers are always on the lookout for evidence of motivation among students, and thus may be more likely to fondly remember those who show interest, the inmate responses prove that, in this case, the teachers’ optimism is justified.

These studies also suggest something else. Far from merely offering a diversion from everyday prison life, college courses help correct a glaring deficit in the lives of many of the inmates, a deficit that has led directly to their incarceration—namely, a failed education. A 2010 DOCS study found that 95.7% of inmates aged 16-18 years needed educational programs. Of these, 68.5% were Black, and 77.2% were Hispanic (Kellam 5). Among women of this age group, the number rose to 100% (Kellam 10).

Works Cited

“Budget Request 2007-2008.” The State University of New York, 2007. PDF file. 29 Nov. 2010.

“College Costs.” Genesee Community College. Genesee Community College, n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.

Garmon, John. “Higher education for prisoners will lower rates for taxpayers.” BNET. CBS Interactive, 17 Jan. 2002. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.

Harlow, Caroline Wolf, et al. “GED holders in prison read better than those in the household population: Why?” BNET. CBS Interactive, March 2010. Web. 28 Nov. 2010.

“Keeping New York Safe.” Division of the Budget. New York State, 2007. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.

Kellam, Leslie. “Targeted Programs: An Analysis of the Impact of Prison Program Participation on Community Success.” State of New York Department of Correctional Services, Sept. 2007. PDF file. 29 Nov. 2010.

Kim, Ryang Hui. “Follow-Up Study of Offenders who Earned High School Equivalency Diplomas (GEDs) While Incarcerated in DOCS.” State of New York Department of Correctional Services, Sept. 2010. PDF file. 29 Nov. 2010.

Steinhauer, Jennifer. “To Cut Costs, States Relax Prison Policies.” The New York Times. 24 March 2009. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.

Vacca, James S. “Educated Prisoners Are Less Likely to Return to Prison.” BNET. CBS Interactive, Dec. 2004. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.

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