Tonawanda News

February 19, 2014

College prison plan draws ire

By Amy Wallace
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Gov. Andrew Cuomo is planning a new statewide initiative to give prisoners the opportunity to earn a college degree by funding college classes in prisons across New York. 

The proposal would provide a college level education at 10 New York state prisons, one in each region of the state. The program would offer both associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. 

“Giving men and women in prison the opportunity to earn a college degree costs our state less and benefits our society more,” Cuomo said. “New York state currently spends $60,000 per year on every prisoner in our system, and those who leave have a 40 percent chance of ending up back behind bars.

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.”

However, the proposal is receiving widespread criticism from residents and politicians including state Sens. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, and Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo.

“I am incensed at this proposal, as are the constituents and taxpayers who have already contacted my office in large numbers,” Maziarz said. “The whole notion of rewarding bad behavior is completely backwards. It should be ‘do the crime, do the time,’ not ‘do the crime, earn a degree.’ It is simply beyond belief to give criminals a competitive edge in the job market over law-abiding New Yorkers who forgo college because of the high cost.”

The state spends $60,000 per year to incarcerate one person and approximately $3.6 billion in total costs for prisons. However, it costs approximately $5,000 per year to provide one year of college education for one inmate.  

“In announcing the prison-to-college proposal, it is worth noting that the administration couldn’t even put a (total) price tag on the scheme,” Maziarz said. “So if the governor thinks the state can afford this, I have a million and one other ideas for how we can use taxpayer dollars more effectively — starting with economic development, job creation and tax relief.”

But Cuomo points to studies that have shown investing in college education for prisoners dramatically decreased recidivism rates while saving tax dollars on incarceration costs. Those who earn a college degree while in prison are less likely to end up behind bars again, therefore decreasing the number of inmates in New York state prisons, according to Cuomo. New York’s current recidivism rate is 40 percent.

Since the discontinuation of PELL and TAP grants in 1994 and 1995, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has supported using private funds for post-secondary education for prisoners. To further enhance the college program, the department developed a model in 2007 that established working partnerships between a correctional facility, a collegiate institution in the same geographic region and, an outside, private funding source.

But it is the cost to the taxpayers that has many upset.

“For our state to demand that taxpayers foot the bill for the college education of prison inmates is a huge slap in the face to those families who are playing by the rules and struggling to make ends meet so they can have a brighter future,” Maziarz said. “These are the New Yorkers who should enjoy greater opportunities to attend college. My constituents can be assured that I will do all I can to see that this proposal is defeated.”

Grisanti has started an online petition against the proposal.

“I have been outspoken against this issue because I feel, along with many Western New Yorkers, that we should put the needs of hardworking, law-abiding citizens who are positively contributing to society first,” Grisanti said. “I will continue to fight for the reinstatement of TAP funds before I even begin to entertain the idea of supporting this program.”

Grisanti is urging all his constituents to sign his online petition to show Cuomo residents do not want this plan.

“I plan to gather the names of people from Western New York and across this state who sign this petition against giving free college to prisoners in order to show Governor Cuomo and my colleagues on both sides of the aisle in Albany that there is significant opposition to utilizing the tax dollars of hardworking New Yorkers in such a manner,” Grisanti said.

The state will be issuing a Request for Proposal starting March 3 that will solicit responses from educational associations that provide college professors and classes in an accredited program in order for inmates to earn their degrees.