Gov. Cuomo to create college degree program for inmates

Stephon Johnson | 2/27/2014, 9:55 a.m.
Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a state initiative to offer college classes, degrees and programs to incarcerated ...
Graduates Hudson Links photo

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants prisoners to arm themselves—with degrees.

Last week, Cuomo announced a state initiative to offer college classes, degrees and programs to incarcerated individuals across the state.

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

Under the initiative, which has already been coined “College U” by some in the mainstream media, college-level education will be provided by 10 New York prisons, with one in each region of the state. The program would offer associate and bachelor’s degrees and would take around two and a half to three years for an inmate to complete. Starting on March 3, New York will issue a request for proposal to solicit responses from educational entities that provide college professors and classes in accredited programs.

State Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson called Cuomo’s plan a “vital asset” for prisoners to move forward once they leave the gates and re-enter society.

“Gov. Cuomo’s initiative to fund these courses in our prisons will help affected New Yorkers build a better future for themselves and their families, and it will result in a reduced prison population that will save taxpayer dollars,” said Hassell-Thompson. “I commend the governor for taking this progressive step to improve the strength of our communities.”

Eddie Ellis, who has been incarcerated in the past and is now the executive of WBAI’s “On the Count” radio show and co-founder of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, told the AmNews what he thinks of Cuomo’s initiative: “I think it’s a good beginning, but I think it falls short of what’s actually needed. I think that outside of an initiative in the prisons, one of the major thing that should be the reinstitution of TAP[Tuition Assistance Program]. There should be financial aid to all people under a certain income level, which would include people in prison, and that would open up the degree programs to everyone in prison. I think he has a lot farther to go.”

According to the governor’s office, New York currently spends $60,000 annually to incarcerate one person and approximately $3.6 billion in total costs for prisons. It would cost much less (approximately $5,000) in that same timespan to provide one year of college education for an inmate. The office has cited studies—but didn’t say which ones—that suggest inmates are less likely to return to prison after earning a college degree.

New York’s current recidivism rate is 40 percent.

Cuomo’s plan drew praise from the likes of Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of “But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry.” His school created its own prison-to-college program with funding from the Ford Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund and the New York State Assembly.

“Gov. Cuomo should be applauded for advancing smart policy that benefits all of us as taxpayers,” said Travis in an email statement. “As New Yorkers, we are spending $60,000 per year per inmate to incarcerate thousands of individuals who overwhelmingly come from—and return to—the most disadvantaged communities of our state.