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New York State Gets Smarter About Prison Education

by Corey Matthews

Corey Matthews is a first-year MPP student at the Goldman School of Public Policy and a regular blogger for the Wire.

Photo Credit: Mike Groll/AP

So, let me start my spill with the preface that the idea of prison education as a means to enhance rehabilitation and reentry of prisoners into society is not a new concept. In fact, it’s something that anti-prison advocates and criminal justice reformists have rallied behind for decades; but of course it takes the courage of a governor to endorse and throw some money at this initiative to get the ball rolling.

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo of New York has publicly announced his support of prison education for ten state prisons in New York. He has called on local investment of private funds and support from Universities to invest in prison education, ultimately creating a way for prisoners to earn not only their AA degrees but also their BAs. Super cool, right? Well, of course it is but even more than cool, it is smart. Check the stats: New York spends up to 60,000 per prisoner per year on incarceration and with recidivism projections as high as 40%, some prisoners can use hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars during the course of their “relationship” with the New York State prison. By the way, I say “relationship” because it sort of feels like that. I don’t know why but sometimes when I think of recidivism, I think of a love song where one person tries to leave but keeps on coming back because they haven’t found anything better. But that is the point, right? The idea of prison education is to help the formerly incarcerated find something better. Jobs, stable housing, income – all the basic necessities, should be afforded to them too.

Politically, this makes sense but is of course risky. We are still in the time of “being tough on crime”, unfortunately. But let me remove myself from the passion podium and talk policy. Tax dollars are getting spent on prisoners – check. Taxpayers want to be safe – check. It is proven that people who attain prison education and job stability during their time in prison, are less likely to return – Wait! What? Yes, it is true. RAND, criminal justice experts and smart policymakers have all run the numbers and it is true. You are less likely to recidivate if you have a prison education because the idea is that an education prepares you for the workforce. Taxpayers should invest in a brighter future for ex-prisoners not just because it’s a good human thing to do but really because it’s just smart. With the swelling of our prison populations in places like California we have no choice but to find better ways of investing our dollars. Some prison education programs are as low as $5000 per person and the system that NY has with private investment offsets costs to tax payers. But who benefits – everyone! Less recidivism means less crime and less money spent on prisons, which means more money spent on everything else. So, let’s nip this thing in the bud, invest a little on the front end and enjoy our returns for all of society to benefit. Thank you Governor Cuomo for taking the lead.

[This article was originally posted on PolicyMatters Journal.]