Free College for Prison Inmates

by Jesse Saffron

On February 16, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a plan to create a state-funded college education program for prison inmates. The governor wants to offer associate and bachelor’s degrees at 10 state prisons, and says doing so will only cost $5,000 per inmate each year (Cuomo’s estimate). 

Speaking to the New York legislature’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus—a caucus with a history of advocating for inmate reintegration initiatives—Cuomo couched his proposal in the rhetoric of fiscal conservatism. He claimed that his “Prison U.” plan will lower recidivism rates and, in turn, reduce taxpayers’ burdens.

According to the governor, 40 percent of New York’s prison inmates return to prison after release. Cuomo said that his proposal will drastically reduce that percentage and will help lower the state’s total annual prison expenditures ($3.6 billion). Since the annual cost-per-inmate is $60,000, the governor argued, the $5,000 required to educate one inmate is a small price to pay for a huge future return.

“Existing programs show that providing a college education in our prisons is much cheaper for the state and delivers far better results. Someone who leaves prison with a college degree has a real shot at a second lease on life because their education gives them the opportunity to get a job and avoid falling back into a cycle of crime,” the governor said.

One of those existing programs is the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), operated by Bard College, a private liberal arts school in southeast New York. The BPI is funded entirely with private money and provides college courses for hundreds of inmates. It operates in six prisons across the state and boasts that its enrollees have only a 4 percent recidivism rate. 

New York Republicans, and even some Democrats, have vehemently opposed Cuomo’s “Prison U.” plan. State lawmakers have created online petitions and, at the federal level, U.S. Representatives Tom Reed, Chris Collins, and Chris Gibson, all Republicans, have co-sponsored a bill called the “Kids Before Cons Act.” The bill would prohibit state and federal prisons from using Department of Education and Department of Justice money for college programs.

So far, much of the opposition to Cuomo’s plan has been based not on conservative or libertarian principles of limited government and fiscal restraint, but on the fact that law-abiding people and voters will get the short end of the stick. People with massive student loan debt and parents struggling to send their children to college, not convicted felons, should be the focus of any new college-related program, opponents say. 

First principles aside, Cuomo’s plan appears to be based on a few flawed premises. Namely, millions of college-educated Americans without felonious backgrounds are unemployed or underemployed. How will a college degree give felons a leg up in this tough employment environment? Second, the Bard program’s low recidivism rate (cited by proponents of Cuomo’s plan) conceals an important truth: inmates who are focused and motivated enough to complete a degree program are probably less disposed, even without a degree, to return to crime. Finally, it’s important to note that the Cuomo plan does not require inmates to take courses or graduate. Surely some will take courses but not complete their respective programs. This will only serve to increase the annual $60,000 per-inmate cost.