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School of hard locks: College for prison inmates?

  • NY Gov. Cuomo wants to offer college courses to prisoners
  • Cuomo: Education cuts repeat offenders, is cheaper than housing inmates
  • Opponents concerned about using tax dollars to fund program
School of hard locks: College for prison inmates?

"First degree" could take on a whole new meaning within New York's prisons if a new proposal is approved by the state legislature.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has introduced a plan to allow inmates to earn college degrees while behind bars by taking college-level courses. Cuomo cited multiple studies showing "that investing in college education for prisoners dramatically decreased recidivism rates while saving tax dollars on incarceration costs," in a statement released by his office this week.

It would take an inmate about two-and-a-half years to earn either an associate's or bachelor's degree in the program, which would be publicly financed. The governor said it's a very worthwhile investment, because it costs much less to educate an inmate than it does to pay for their repeated visits to prison.

"New York State currently spends $60,000 per year on every prisoner in our system, and those who leave have a 40% chance of ending up back behind bars," he said.

Weigh that against the approximately $5,000 per year the governor's office says it costs to provide a college education for an inmate.

The initiative would roll out across 10 different state prisons, which would partner with local colleges or universities. A privately funded version of this model already exists in New York; the new proposal would greatly expand it.

"A higher level of education will support these men and women in moving forward with their lives," said New York State Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell, a Democrat who chairs the state's Committee on Corrections. "As opposed to returning to criminal activity and prison."

However, State Sen. Mark Grisanti, a Republican from Buffalo, said he's opposed to using public funds "when so many individuals and families in New York are struggling to meet the ever-rising costs of higher education."

That concern was addressed in a Huffington Post op-ed from a former inmate who earned two degrees while serving time in Sing Sing in the 1980s and 1990s. Anthony Papa writes that critics of his opportunity "talked about how I got a free college education instead of being punished. My response was that I did not get a free education, I paid dearly for it, serving 12 years in prison and I did everything I could to make a bad situation good."

What do you think of investing in inmates' college education? Will it ultimately reduce crime and the number of repeat offenders, or is it a poor use of public funds? Let us know in the comments.

Follow Jonathan Anker on Twitter @JonFromHLN

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