Can we really afford to not provide college courses in our prisons?

Recently, state Sen. Patty Ritchie started a petition to oppose Gov. Cuomo’s Feb. 16 proposal to provide opportunities for the incarcerated to work toward earning a college degree. Perhaps many in the North Country felt the governor’s proposal was a “slap in the face.” After all, the region’s unemployment rates are 2 to 3 points above the national average, we struggle to fund our children’s college education, and we worry whether our rural schools will be able to provide enough resources to ensure they have a high-quality elementary and secondary school education. However, it may seem shortsighted to oppose the governor’s proposal.

Providing opportunities for the incarcerated is a proposal that frees up money that could go toward our children’s college education. Until we can radically reduce the state’s correction budget, an inordinately large percentage of our taxes will continue to be tied up. And what is worse, we can’t have any confidence that this money is well spent. What if some portion of those dollars was reallocated to the Tuition Assistance Program or Higher Education Opportunity Program, or to our public schools so we could stop cutting programs and teachers?

Consider how often taxpayers demand that public education be accountable to taxpayers. We regularly engage in an important statewide debate over smart, efficient spending in public education. Why don’t we demand the same accountability from corrections?

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, prisons in New York cost taxpayers about $60,000 per individual. The cost of corrections, however, goes beyond the operating costs of our prisons. Our communities lose services because the incarcerated are no longer paying taxes. And in many cases, their families require taxpayer assistance in the form of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), foster care or Medicaid due to loss of income.

Current programs provided in prisons are simply not cost-effective. A 2009 study by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision found that 41 percent of those formerly incarcerated returned to custody within three years. If our public schools and public universities were failing 41 percent of our students, wouldn’t we demand accountability? We shouldn’t have one standard for our schools and another for our prisons. Both of these public institutions serve the welfare of New York state. And to serve effectively, we should institute programs that deliver results.

Happily, we already know that an investment of our tax dollars in offering higher-education opportunities in prisons is a good investment. In 1997, the U.S. Department of Education conducted the “Three State Recidivism Study” which found that every dollar spent on prison-based education returned more than $2 back to taxpayers by reducing corrections costs. Moreover, of those incarcerated men and women who have been able to take college courses and earn degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative, only 4 percent have returned to prison. Imagine if we could replicate this rate statewide; we could return the money raided from public education to pay for exploding corrections costs back where it rightfully belongs. We can reinvest in our schools and make college within the reach of every citizen.

Can we really afford to pass up on this opportunity?

Jennifer Hansen is a professor of philosophy at St. Lawrence University in Canton. She teaches and works in North Country prisons.