Attica U.

Via Wikimedia Commons

New York State’s prisons are not necessarily filled with bad people. 

They are, however, filled with people who have made bad – sometimes violent – choices. They are filled with people who have broken our laws. 

Many of them, for instance, have been imprisoned falsely. Some are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes. Many are just straight up murderers, rapists, assailants, batterers, burglars, armed robbers, kidnappers – people who have deliberately or recklessly done harm to innocent people. 

It’s very, very easy to forget the purposes of incarcerating criminals. It’s not always just punitive – there is supposed to be a degree of redemption and rehabilitation built into the system. However, it hasn’t worked that way, and people are loath to try because “coddling criminals”. 

How we treat New York’s inmates reflects on us as human beings. It also speaks to whether we’re smart or not. As it stands, we’re not. 

America has the highest incarceration rate in the world; about 3/4th of 1% of our population is behind bars. About 22% of America’s detainees are awaiting trial; presumed innocent, having been convicted of nothing. Incarceration rates have skyrocketed since the early 1980s, and New York is 37th in the nation in terms of the rate of its people who are behind bars – about 1/3 of 1% of New Yorkers. Of those, the prison population is overwhelmingly black and Latino – the disparity between the general population and the prison population is dramatic. Most state prisons are upstate, and these newpats are counted as part of the local population for election purposes. 

It costs $60,000 to house, feed, and guard New York prisoners, and also to give them just enough entertainment so they don’t murder each other or the men and women who guard them. Anyone who thinks that New York’s prisoners are guests at a country club facility should arrange a visit to, say, Attica. These are grim fortresses housing a great many people who never had a fighting chance at doing anything else with their lives. 

Earlier this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he wanted to implement a program to give inmates a chance to earn a free college degree. A private initiative operated by Bard College has found that recidivism rates among prisoners who earned a degree while behind bars plummeted from 40% to 4%

The knee-jerk reactions from outraged people was swift, furious, and downright disheartening. I believe that people deserve a chance, and even a second chance, at least.  I believe that a $5,000 annual investment to provide an eager, motivated inmate with a second chance at a productive life outside prison is an investment well made. Would we rather shove him out of the prison environment back into the environment from where he came, with no help, services, skills, or education? What do you think is going to happen? Shall we do the same thing over and over again, expecting different results? Would you rather that a man fresh out of prison with nothing more than a probation officer is going to magically find his way to building the sort of life that you or I enjoy, without any guidance, mentoring, or life skills? 

I would rather not pay for an inmate’s return to prison. I would rather that society save the money on pretrial detention, police services, court time, court personnel, transportation, post-conviction detention, food, housing, clothes, etc., through a program to redirect and truly attempt to rehabilitate people motivated to find a new way. 

This doesn’t mean we’re going to be handing out Bachelor’s degrees to murderers, but if there’s a drug dealer behind bars at 21 who’s due to be released in his 30s, doesn’t it make sense to give that person hope and life skills for a future where he’s not relying on crime or the victimization of others? 

In 1995, Governor Pataki dismantled an already existing program. This Huffington Post contributor wrote this, at the time

We the imprisoned people of New York State, 85% of whom are black and Latino, 75% of whom come from 26 assembly districts in 7 neighborhoods in New York City, to which 98% will someday return, possibly no better off than when we left, uneducated and lacking employable skills, declare this Kairos in response to the elimination of the prison college programs, GED and vocational training programs and education beyond the eighth-grade level. The elimination of prison education programs is part of Governor Pataki’s proposed budget cuts. It amounts to less than one third of one percent of the total state budget, but it will cost taxpayers billions of dollars in the years to come.

I went on to state that many studies, even one conducted by the New York State Department of Correctional Services, have demonstrated empirically what people know intuitively: that prisoners who earn college degrees are far less likely to return to a life of crime upon release. According to research conducted by the Department, of the inmates who earned a college degree in 1986, 26% had returned to state prison, whereas 45% of inmates who did not earn a degree were returned to custody. For many prisoners, gaining an education signals an end to personal failure and a ladder out of poverty and crime. Without it, the governor may as well change the name “Department of Correctional Services” to “Department of Correctional Warehousing.” As the former Chief Justice Warren Burger stated: “To confine offenders without trying to rehabilitate them is expensive folly.”

The author of that passage was imprisoned at Sing Sing for a nonviolent drug offense under the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws – he went in the system in 1985 and was released in 1997.  During that time, he took advantage of a then-extant program at Sing Sing operated by the Bronx Community College. 

My two year degree opened my eyes to the value of getting a college education. After that I received my B.S. in Behavioral Science from Mercy College, then went on to receive a graduate degree from New York Theological Seminary. I survived imprisonment because of my ability to transcend the negativity around me because of the rehabilitative qualities of a college education.

When I was released from prison after receiving executive clemency for Governor George Pataki in 1997 my reentry into society was eased because of my college education. But it was not an easy deal. When some people found out about where I got my college education they were not too happy. I remember going on a few television shows and talking about my college education. Instead of being happy for me they 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.

Our prisons should not be equipped with revolving doors for poor, uneducated, downstate black and Latinos; kids who more often than not came from dysfunctional homes, bad neighborhoods, and who had no one to teach them the value of anything. At some point, some effort should be made to ensure that there is no return visit. Through that investment, we can – in the long run – help save the taxpayers billions. 

Former inmate Anthony Cardenales, 39, of the Bronx, earned degrees from Bard College during his 16-year prison sentence on manslaughter charges. He is now vice president of an electronics recycling company in Mount Vernon.

 The costs of our high recidivism rate is throwing good money after bad. The people convicted of crimes deserve to be punished, yes. But we as a society are completely ignorant and blind to the societal costs of reintroducing ex-cons to society without the support and tools they need to make it. We don’t spend $60,000 per year to rehabilitate them – just to cage them. The New York system already uses their slave labor to build furniture. (Here is another article about other penitentiary work programs).

We already run GED programs and high-school level courses for inmates. 

If we can exploit their labor, certainly we can give those who want it an education and a chance at a better life as productive members of society. 


  • “If we can exploit their labor …”
    So, you think that making a convicted criminal work to pay back a tiny fraction of the cost of keeping him off the streets amounts to “exploiting his labor”?
    Eugene V. Debs, meet your faithful disciple, Mr. Pundit.

  • At the prison where I worked and retired from I talked to an inmate one day. He was a pretty good worker and had been an inmate plumber’s assistant for a long time. He received training and practical experience in plumbing as well as earning his GED while in stir.
    His release date had been set so I asked him what he was going to do when he got out. He told me he was going back “home” and returning to selling drugs on the street just like he did to get imprisoned in the first place.
    I asked if he should rather get a plumber’s job and avoid spending more years in prison. He replied that even if he got into the union and worked hard, with expenses in NYC they way they are he would be looking at a life of just getting by. By selling drugs he could have the good life. Fancy car or two, a nice apartment, clothes…all that. He hoped his luck would be better and he would not get caught this time.
    From a monetary standpoint it was hard to argue with his logic.

  • I found Mark Grisanti’s dissent to Cuomo’s plan (that we shouldn’t use taxpayer resources for criminals when so many non-criminals are struggling or unable to pay for college) to be entirely disingenuous. As if the money for this initiative would otherwise be used to lessen the tuition burden at SUNY.

    Where was Grisanti looking out for people who can’t afford college when Cuomo cut $2 million from the SUNY budget this year? Where was Grisanti when SUNY decided to close this budget gap and even increase their bottom line with tuition increases? Where was Grisanti looking out for wise use of college resources when UB announced a plan to spend $25 million on a field house and “football headquarters” last week?

    What a hack.

  • Gubner Andy is expanding the school to prison pipeline. Henceforth it shall be known as the school to prison to college pipeline. Wonder if he can send the cons to charter schools too or what the hell, why not just privatize the prisons like they do in Arizona? The 1% are so clever when they dabble in the lives of the small people.

  • First of all we need to change the drug laws. Secondly, why can’t a student loan system be set up for inmates so they can set forth to honest work burdened with debt like the rest of the college grads?

  • “Anyone who thinks that New York’s prisoners are guests at a country club facility should arrange a visit to, say, Attica.”

    My wife, a chaplain and social worker, does so every Friday; and I have had the opportunity to join her as a guest. My observation is that aside from issues of poverty, in many cases the major difference between the 40-year-old inmate and me is that his 30 seconds of rage at age 17 resulted in someone’s death; whereas my 30 seconds of rage remained below the threshold of a major felony.

    Not all guys behind bars can be rehabilitated. But *some* can, and to deny them the opportunity to better their lives while behind bars pretty much guarantees that downstream, they will re-enter the system because of their inability to integrate with society. It doesn’t take a math genius to figure out that the cost of recidivism (Alan’s quote of $60K a year) far exceeds the cost to teach them useful skills.

    It doesn’t have to be free and it doesn’t have to be college. But it has to be something. Any economist will tell you that this is money well spent.

  • As much as I support the initiative to educate prisoners, I also understand the anger of law-abiding citizens who are watching college costs skyrocket beyond their reach.
    This reminds me a lot of private sector employees who condemn public sector benefits and pensions, mainly because they were taken away from them years ago.

    We should be advocating funding that rolls back state school tuition costs to what they were when the baby boomers attended college. We should demand the return of state-sponsored scholarships. And we should recognize that educating prisoners will absolutely turn lives around.

    • The problem with the line of thinking most people have around this is that they equate “education” with “college tuition.” Nothing could be further from the truth. College tuition involves thousands of things we never give prisoners, or that they already get. They’re already housed, heated, and fed. We’re not giving them sports programs, or campuses, or overpaid administrative staff. This is very basic stuff. Education for inmates is a microscopic fraction of the cost of actual college. And according to multiple studies, it vastly reduces the recidivism rate, so much so that it pays for itself several times over in reducing future incarceration costs.

      People need to ask themselves whether we want prisons to be revolving doors that take in minor offenders and spit out major ones who have no skills beyond the criminal, or if we want a solution which will cost effectively reduce crime.

      • I see what you’re saying, but many college students are too busy raising children and working two jobs just to make ends meet while in college. They simply DO NOT have time to enjoy any of the perks of being enrolled in a college. If my tax money goes towards prisoners’ education, then I want that same tax money to wipe away MY debt, since I worked my arse off just to get a degree with no perks.

  • Oh dear. King Collins has now come out against use of federal funds for this. This will get him a press release and a podium, and not much else.

  • If my tax money goes to pay for their college education, then I want my tax money to also go towards MY OWN tuition payments. I am going to be in debt for the next twenty years, after coming out of college into a dismal job market, and I will have to pay off this loan MYSELF. I’m against this college for prisoners plan, but I’ll compromise: give prisoners college educations, and forgive ALL student loan debt for law-abiding citizens. Make college free for those who keep a standard grade point average. That seems fair to me.

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