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Educate everyone, leave no one behind

Elinor Tatum | 2/20/2014, 2:57 p.m.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo is trying to change the tides and attack recidivism at its core, making education available to inmates ...
Elinor Tatum

“Education is a right, fight, fight, fight!” This has been a slogan of protestors fighting for education opportunities and education parity for decades. Whether it has been the need for universal pre-K, more funding for books or instruction or access to quality education or higher education, the call for justice has been on the lips and minds of minority communities since the dawn of public education.

Over the years, we have seen that the lack of quality education in our communities has led to an ever-growing prison population. Currently, New York’s inmate population is 49.2 percent African-American and 24 percent Hispanic. The prison-industrial complex has thrived on the back of our community. Worse yet, while prison is supposed to reform, all it has done is punish and encourage the formerly incarcerated to commit crimes when they return to their communities.

But now, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is trying to change the tides and attack recidivism at its core, making education available to inmates by offering them an opportunity to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree while incarcerated. Studies have shown time and time again that educating the incarcerated makes recidivism drop exponentially. So while there may be costs associated with educating inmates, the risk of incurring the cost of them returning to prison drops dramatically.

“Giving men and women in prison the opportunity to earn a college degree costs our state less and benefits our society more,” said Cuomo.

New York currently spends $60,000 per inmate per year. It would cost the state another $5,000 a year to educate them. “Someone who leaves prison with a college degree has a real shot at a second lease on life because their education gives them the opportunity to get a job and avoid falling back into a cycle of crime,” said the governor.

The initiative will provide college-level education at 10 New York prisons, one in each region of the state. This program would be a game changer in our communities. Young men and women would have a way out of the cycle of poverty and crime by making their time in prison productive.

We already know that our people are disproportionately affected by the prison system. Studies show that one out of every three Black American men and one in every six Latino men will be incarcerated

at some point in their lifetimes, compared to one out of every 17 white men. If we’re able to educate even a 10th of those who are incarcerated, the economic ramifications could be staggering. It could mean the difference between the state paying $60,000 a year to incarcerate people versus ex-offenders returning to the community, obtaining real jobs and becoming productive, taxpaying members of society.

This plan is just the beginning. Educating those inside could mean a real change in the directions of our communities. This proposal by the governor is one that we must get behind 100 percent, for there are those who still believe that our communities should not be educated. There are those who believe—though they will never say it—that educating our communities would adversely impact upstate communities, because with more education, there is less incarceration.

We must fight those ideals and fight for our futures. We cannot listen to the likes of state Sen. Greg Ball of Putnam County, who says, “In a world of finite resources, where we are struggling to find funding for education for our kids, the last thing New York state should be funding is college tuition for convicts.”

We need college education for all. Let’s make time spent in prison productive. Let’s make it possible for real futures to be obtained by those who have fallen on the wrong side of the law or those who have been unjustly convicted. This is not only a second chance for those languishing behind bars, but also a boon to our society if they take advantage of an opportunity they may not have had during their first tour of our education system.