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New York moves to expand higher education inside prison walls

Published: Friday, Feb. 21 2014 1:13 p.m. MST

In this Oct. 7, 2010 photo, a graduate holds her GED diploma during the graduation ceremony at the Homestead Correctional Institution in Homestead, Fla. New York is considering breaking through a key political barrier with a bold new proposal to educate felons behind bars.

Alan Diaz, Associated Press

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pushing to extend college education behind bars in his state, a bold proposal that may be a hard sell. Educating prisoners may or may not make dollars and sense.

Few dispute that paying to warehouse prisoners without prospects is far more costly than educating them. But such programs usually have been sure losers politically. Parents paying skyrocketing tuition at state schools have long looked askance at taxpayer-funded higher education in prisons. Reaching back to the relatively early days of the drug war in 1994, Congress responded to this pressure by cutting off Pell Grants for prisoners.

Opposition to Cuomo's proposal did not take long to form. "Sen. Greg Ball, R-Patterson, Putnam County, was among a group of lawmakers Tuesday to announce a petition drive to block the initiative," the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported. "He and other opponents, including Republican Sen. George Maziarz of Niagara County, said the state shouldn't be using public money for prisoners at a time when residents are struggling to pay for college education for themselves or their children."

“While it is understandable for the need of counseling and rehabilitation, free college tuition for prisoners is a slap in the face to hard working New Yorkers that work multiple jobs and take out exorbitant student loans to pay for the cost of higher education,” said Sen. Greg Ball, a Putnam County Republican who started the petition, in a statement.

“I believe that we should put the needs of hardworking, law-abiding citizens who are positively contributing to society first, and I will continue to fight for the reinstatement of TAP funds before I even begin to entertain the idea of supporting this program,” Sen. Mark Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican, said in a statement, as reported by Capital New York.

"Yet the same political and social forces," The New York Times noted in an editorial, "that have driven the country’s prison boom over four decades have also worked to eliminate most government support for inmate education, including Congress’s irrational and counterproductive decision in 1994 to deny federal Pell Grants to people in prison. In the aftermath, the number of college degree programs for prisoners around the country dropped from 350 to about a dozen."

By way of hard evidence, the Times editorial referenced a recent RAND report, which found after reviewing 30 years of data that educating prisoners while behind bars substantially reduces recidivism rates.

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com

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