Prison college plan is a profile in courage
Should inmates in New York state prisons receive free college educations? Governor Andrew Cuomo thinks so. I think that this recent move by Cuomo is a profile in courage. Cuomo is one of the sharpest political practitioners around. Like a master chess player, he is acutely aware of what reaction will result from every political move he makes. Sometimes he does what is right rather than what is politically expedient. In other words, there is good governmental policy and then there is practical politics. When it comes to politics, this may not be the most popular way to proceed but it’s a good example of sound policy. When he went before the Black and Latino Caucus and announced his plan to fund prisoners who wanted to take college courses to the tune of $5,000 each, Cuomo had to know that there would be some hell to pay.
We all know that New York state correctional facilities have a disparate number of African American and Latino inmates and we all know why. These groups have long suffered the scourge of discrimination. Economic and social pressures combined make for a very uneven playing field. The recidivism rate among this population is particularly frightening. Prisoners leave and then return because, without employment, their options are limited to a life of crime. Those on the outside don’t want to hire them so Cuomo proposes to give these folks a chance, allowing them to take college courses. When Bard College ran such a program the results were impressive. The recidivism rate was just fraction of what it had been.
The reaction on the part of people who have had to struggle to pay for college was predictable. To put it mildly, the burden that is placed on lower- and middle-class families is horrendous. I wasn’t surprised when I talked about this with my students and practically everyone in the class said the Cuomo plan wasn’t right. Why should they have to pay for college while those who broke the law were getting a free ride? It didn’t stop with the kids. Some legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, expressed similar outrage. Parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts who were putting kids through school were off the wall. Some suggested, “Okay, but make them borrow the money the same way our kids do and make them pay it back after they get out.”
Petitions were circulated. Right wing pundits were livid. People were reminded that when George Pataki was governor he took an axe to programs like the Cuomo initiative. Some cynically suggested that Cuomo was just being “political” when he brought his program to the meeting of African Americans and Hispanics.
There are those who have long suggested that our African American population is owed reparations for the way they have been treated in this country. That is not going to happen but it might be wise to recognize that the programs of mass incarceration we have in New York are counterproductive.
We are told that it costs around $60,000 a year to maintain a convict. It’s no secret that we have a large prison industry in the state so it is not surprising that any move that will help empty our prisons is met with outrage. The economic consequences would be staggering.
People are right to be outraged about the cost of a college education. Let’s save the money we are spending on prisons and use it to pay for college for everyone. That’s the way it was when I went to Hunter College and that’s part of our obligation to our young people who can make the grade if given the opportunity. I’d love to see Governor Cuomo get with that initiative. In the meantime, he deserves a lot of credit for what he is doing to send prisoners to college.
Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 2/24/14