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.