Prisoners Dilemma

A plan to pay for jail-based higher education with taxpayer dollars gets upended in New York. The governor is now looking for private money.

April 4, 2014
Governor Andrew Cuomo

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has dropped a plan to provide public money for inmate higher education. Instead, his administration is looking to find donors to fund his plan.

The proposal, which the Democratic governor announced in February, withered in the face of opposition, particularly among Republicans in the state Senate. They argued that prisoners were going to be rewarded for their crimes with a free education while law-abiding students were being asked to take on more and more debt to pay for college.

In a press conference this week detailing the final budget deal, Cuomo said he lost out on public money because of the “appearance issue and symbolism.” It’s also an election year. The governor said he will now seek private money for prison education.

It’s not clear how much he will need or where he can get the money. An administration spokesman said Cuomo’s office had ”received a number of inquiries” from potential donors. A plan the size of the governor’s original ambition – college programs in 10 state prisons to start with – would likely cost several million dollars a year.

Supporters of prison higher education were disappointed by the defeat but also encouraged by the public attention to the issue, which hasn’t received much positive attention since the 1990s.  

“My sense is if you’re saying we’re going back to having private funding for this, that’s basically what we’ve already got, so the governor isn’t doing anything,” said Robert Scott, the executive director of Cornell University’s Prison Education Program.

But Scott said his cause now has the support of the governor, which it didn’t have before, and the governor tends not to back down from things he supports. “I hope it puts this on the political radar, that might be the consequence this time, rather than full funding,” he said.

The politics have not been good for about two decades, since Kay Bailey Hutchison, then a Republican Senator from Texas, backed a plan that made felons ineligible for the Pell Grant.

Congress and the Clinton administration ended Pell Grant funding for prisoners in 1994, effectively cutting off funds for most college education in prisons. The state of New York and many other states followed suit. Without government support, privately funded prisoner education programs are fragile and hard to sustainable.

Supporters of prisoner higher education said it saves money by preparing prisoners for life after jail and would cut New York’s recidivism rate of 40 percent. It would cost about $5,000 a year to educate prisoners, but it costs about $60,000 to jail them. In a poll, a thin majority of New Yorkers said they supported the governor’s plan. 

The plan also picked up some support from people not focused on prison reform. For instance, the head of a group of New York City industry executives called Cuomo’s original plan “fiscally prudent” and the editorial board of the conservative New York Post said it was “intrigued by the idea,” though it suggested the governor seek private funding. Late last year, Cuomo used private money to try to decrease recidivism in the state. Investors put up money to fund a "social impact bond" that the government promised to pay back if the money helped train and employ criminals after they are released. 

Glen Martin, an activist with JustLeadershipUSA, a nonprofit that wants to cut the American prison population in half by 2030, said he believes the governor is still working to advance the plan.

“Based on what I know, the governor remains committed to increasing access to higher education for people in prison and unfortunately because of a handful of misinformed Senate Republicans who are not putting public safety before politics, we ended up with a much less robust version of what the governor proposed, and much less sustainable,” Martin said.

Max Kenner, the founder of Bard College’s prison initiative said he thinks the governor plans to stick with the cause.

“I think that we would be mistaken to think that this was over,” he said.


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