In NY and NJ, Political Heavyweights Debate College for Prisoners

The debate about whether prisoners should be given a free college education remains strong. In 1994, President Bill Clinton cut the college prison program, saying that it was more important that we give grants to law abiding citizens than criminals, but some officials are working to restore access to higher education.

Proponents of educating educate prisoners say that it is more costly in the long run for taxpayers to pay for an inmate’s reincarceration than pay for classes. Studies have shown that prisoners that are educated in prison have a lower reincarceration rate than those that are not. Matthew Mangino of Len Connection writes:

In a press release the governor’s office revealed that New York currently spends $60,000 per year to incarcerate each inmate, and approximately $3.6 billion each year in total prison costs. New York’s current recidivism rate is about 40%. With a paltry investment of $5,000 per inmate to provide one year of college education, New York could cut into the recidivism rate and reduce costs.

Other proponents, like New Jersey governor Chris Christie, believe that all prisoners should be given a fresh chance at life, according to Sherrina Navani for The Trentonian. He says that we all have made mistakes and just need to get back up again. He believes that the life of a 16-year-old heroin addict in jail is no less precious or full of potential than a high school student with honors.

Opponents of the free college for prisoners state that government should not be giving inmates free money for college when plenty of low income, law-abiding students cannot get grants. Johnson reported:

New York Times Magazine reported that Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, argued it was unfair for felons to benefit from Pell Grants when as many as 100,000 low-income students were denied them each year. She asked, “Why should prisoners be educated for nothing when so many honest folks failed to get a break?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York disagreed with Hutchinson and tried to push a state bill to use federal money to fund inmate education programs. He dropped the measure after coming under heavy opposition though, writes Mangino.

However, NJ-STEP is different from the original federal money plan because taxpayers do not foot the bill, reports Brent Johnson of the Star Ledger. The program, which is based at Rutgers University-Newark, is kept alive with donated money from private businesses, institutions, and organizations. The Ford Foundation and The Sunshine Lady Foundation have dedicated themselves to donating $4 million to Rutgers over the course of next four years to assist in funding the growth of the program.

The colleges that are running the program also work with the state Department of Corrections and State Parole Board to teach the classes, writes Johnson. Educators from the college teach at the jail to instruct a plethora of 178 classes. Counselors assist the prisoners to transition into colleges and universities to finish their college degrees after they are released from jail.