Campaign To Restore College Coursework Behind Bars Gets Big Boost In New York

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at Wilborn Temple in 2014. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MIKE GROLL
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at Wilborn Temple in 2014. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MIKE GROLL

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing a new plan to fund college courses for prisoners in New York state, arguing that educating inmates will reduce the chance that they will end back up in jail.

According to the New York Times, the governor announced on Sunday his intention to use $7.5 million in criminal forfeiture funds — along with another $7.5 million in private matching funds — to pay for a new program that offers an “integrated curriculum” to about 1,000 inmates statewide over the next five years. Cuomo made his announcement while speaking from the pulpit of Mount Neboh Baptist Church, a predominantly black congregation in Harlem, New York.

I say when they’re in prison, teach them a skill.

“I say when they’re in prison, teach them a skill,” Cuomo said. “Give them an education.”

Cuomo proposed a similar plan nearly two years ago, but was rebuffed when critics suggested the governor should prioritize children’s education over that of prisoners, and that taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill for inmates. The idea for prisoner education had a resurgence in 2015, however, when the Obama administration lifted a ban on offering Pell grants to some prisoners, granting inmates access to the government funds for the first time since 1994.


Proposals such as Cuomo’s and Obama’s actually enjoy popular support from New York voters, largely because the policies help prevent criminals from becoming repeat offenders. Various studies support the idea that education keeps people out of jail. One study from the 1990s reported that people who took classes while in prison were 29 percent less likely to end up back behind bars within three years of their release. A separate RAND Corporation report showed that prison courses not only reduce lifetime recidivism by 13 percent, but also eventually save the government roughly $5 for every dollar spent on prisoner education.

This makes Cuomo’s proposal especially important for people of color, who are more likely to spend time in prison than white people: one in 6 black men and 1 in 36 Latino men are incarcerated in the U.S., compared to 1 in 106 white males. People of color are also less likely to attend college in general — in part because of financial constraints, but also because of racial bias in some application processes. What’s more, ex-prisoners often face a very real stigma within society, and an estimated 60 to 75 percent of former inmates struggle to find employment in the first year out of jail.

Cyrus R. Vance Jr, the Manhattan district attorney whose funds are paying for half of Cuomo’s proposal, explained that the program was ultimately rooted in a fairly simple logic.

“If we don’t provide an exit strategy for ex-offenders, they are just going to be re-offenders,” Vance said. “It’s just really common sense.”

Cuomo’s proposal — which will take effect in the fall — will also expand existing prison education programs by roughly a third, and improve their rigor so that course credits can be easily transferred to other colleges.