Governor Cuomo’s new proposal to provide a college education for state prisoners is, understandably, quite unpopular with many people who have student loan debt. Nobody wants to be saddled with the level of debt that a higher education generally requires and it’s hard to support paying for prison education programs when regular, hard-working citizens have thousands of dollars of debt stemming from an insufficient financial aid system and skyrocketing higher education costs.
The thing is, you can support prison education and support financial aid reform. It’s not an either-or situation. If you have mounds of student debt and find it troublesome that state prisoners could get an education without incurring such debt, you don’t need to oppose their education – simply support financial aid reform. The Huffington Post recently reported that the average country in OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that is comprised of developed democracies with free market economies, publicly funds about 70 percent of college tuition while in the U.S. only about 40 percent of a college education is publicly funded. Clearly there’s some room for improvement.
And you know what? If we incarcerated fewer people every year, we could easily afford both financial aid reform and prison education programs. Currently there are about 55,000 state prison inmates in New York, a number which excludes Riker’s Island and county jails. Every year it costs $60,000 to house each of those inmates; the state spends around $3 billion a year funding its prisons and parole department. Again, those numbers don’t include the cost of county jails.
Despite the exorbitant cost, as a whole, we over-incarcerate our citizens. The U.S. has only 5 percent of the world’s population, but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners. We have a higher incarceration rate than China, Russia, Cuba, Iran, and every other country in the world except for possibly North Korea - although with no data there it’s difficult to say. More than 60 percent of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in the U.S. are locked up for non-violent crimes. Clearly, some amount of prison reform is direly needed.
I have, you might say, “insider knowledge.” I did 21 months in prison for a drug charge. I don’t think I truly ever understood the connection between a lack of education and a life of crime until I saw it first-hand. During the intake process in state prison, all inmates take placement tests to gauge their existing level of education and we all casually compared our results afterwards. I met, for the first time, full-grown adults - many, not one - who were proud to boast middle-school reading levels. I met some who were completely illiterate. Many inmates are people who the public education system has vastly failed. They’re people who fell through the cracks - and who will continue to fall through the cracks until we, as a society, decide to do something about it.
Certainly, not having an education doesn’t entail a life of crime. Ultimately it’s a choice - a very bad choice. Unfortunately, it’s a bad choice that’s much easier to make when you have fewer options open to you because you don’t have an education. Also, though, it’s a choice that can’t be unmade; in New York there’s no felony expungement. When you’re freshly released from prison, you’re a felon with a long gap in your work history, no references, and a strict curfew along with the many other strictures of parole. Although you certainly deserve all those things, it makes gainful employment extremely difficult. I personally was unable to find regular employment for the first year after my release - until I began working as a freelance writer, a task I was only able to perform because of my education. And isn’t that exactly what we want of ex-prisoners? We want them to find gainful employment and start paying taxes.
Even if you have no compassion for an ex-con who is trying to find a legitimate job and embark on a new way of life, it’s in your best interest to support their rehabilitation. There’s a high correlation between increasing educational level and decreasing recidivism rates. A study published in Corrections Today found that the recidivism rate for those who complete their GED is 20 percent lower than the general prison population recidivism rate, while the rate for those who complete a higher education degree is 44 percent lower. Given that 95 percent of inmates will eventually be released back into society, it is in our collective - and individual - best interest to decrease the incarceration rate. Maybe one day the person whose education your tax dollars helped fund will be the person who helps design your car - instead of the person who steals your car to pay for their next fix.