Credit: 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.

“For the past 20 years, with the exception of small private college programs, these inmates have not been able to access a college education,” continued Travis. “This policy overlooks the clear research findings that a college education reduces the rate of recidivism.”

But College U has already drawn the ire of state conservatives. Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy said New Yorkers who follow the rules should be offended by Cuomo’s initiative.

“This proposal is an insult to law-abiding New Yorkers who struggle to pay tuition and take out enormous student loans in order to finance their college education,” said Langworthy in a statement. He also said that it’s further proof that New York should “be under new management next January.”

Regarding Cuomo’s initiative, Sean Pica, the executive director of Hudson Link said, “It’s definitely very exciting news. I was around when it was funded by federal and state and remember the breadth of that reach. When it went private, organizations like mine still helped by it only touched a fraction of the students it could be touching. Three hundred and thirty-four men and women are enrolled through Hudson Link, but that’s still less than 1 percent of the entire population.”

When asked whether it might be better to bring back TAP, Pica said, “I think that either way would work because it’s the exact same financial model. I actually think doing it through Pell [Grants] or TAP would be futile now because, legislatively, that’s been taken away.

“I feel like we know it works really well, so let’s just have a different name slapped on to it so it doesn’t become hung up in political debate.”

Republican Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino was equally upset over the initiative, questioning Cuomo’s leadership in the process.

“I’ve been putting what I can into a [college fund] every month for my three young children,” Astorino recently told the Buffalo News. “But under Gov. Cuomo, all they’ll need to do is commit a felony to get a free college degree. With harebrained ideas like this, it’s no wonder New York is on a losing track.”

Just by coincidence, the New York Post revealed this week that Astorino plans to run against Cuomo for governor but won’t officially announce it until next week.

Assembly Member Karim Camara isn’t happy with Astorino’s statements, all but labeling them irresponsible in a statement. He also said Cuomo’s goal is not only fiscally responsible, but socially responsible as well.

“Astorino’s fear-mongering is obscuring some very basic math,” said Camara. “His claim that New York taxpayers would rather pay $60,000 to keep somebody in jail versus $5,000 to educate them is absurd. Not only does Astorino’s logic cost taxpayers $55,000 more, but it actually keeps New York communities less safe.

“The same taxpayers that he’s claiming to speak for would see crime decrease if the incarcerated are released with real educational and career-oriented gains,” said Camara.

On conservative backlash in response to the program, Ellis noted, “I think that kind of thinking is counterproductive and very negative and certainly short-sighted. All of the research that has been done over the past 20 years shows that people that have been incarcerated that get degrees have less a chance of recidivism. That essentially means public safety is enhanced.”

Overall, Ellis determined, “It seems to me that upstate, their thinking is very narrow and very selfish and motivated by self-interest. College-level education reduces recidivism. That would mean less people returning to prison after they leave. What they fear is that if less people come to prison, then prisons close … then their constituents lose their jobs.”