Monday, November 24, 2008

Returning Education to Our Prisons Improves Lives in Manhattan

New York State and the rest of the United States became addicted to incarceration in the 1990's while simultaneously becoming infatuated with increasing the level of punishment for those convicted of crimes and even for those who had already finished their time in prison. The desire to amplify the punishment levels led to massive reductions in educational opportunities for those who are incarcerated, loss of education funding options for those out of prison, and direct barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated individuals seeking employment.

The leadership at the national level and the leadership here in New York State must find the financial firepower and the political will to create increased quantities of higher education opportunities within our prisons and to lower the barriers to lawful employment for those previously incarcerated.

A Population Boom in the Prisons

During 1990's, the number of U.S. residents incarcerated per 100,000 residents ballooned from 461 to 703 after being only 209 in 1980 and at or below approximately 200 for the 80 years prior to 1980. See Page 4 -

Ironically, the more than tripling of the rate of incarceration corresponds to a period of reduced crime rates. From 1980 to 2000, the violent crime rate in the United States dropped from 597 per 100,000 population to 507. Nonviolent crimes per 100,000 population dropped from 5,353 to 3,618 during that same period. Since 2000, the crime rates have continued to drop, while prison populations have finally started to level off.

A Funding Bust in Educating Those in Prison

The Crime Bill of 1994 eliminated Pell Grants for higher education in prison. It was part of a package of changes at the federal level that increased the penalties for a laundry list of crimes and created new federal crimes in areas that had traditionally been left for the states. The elimination of Pell Grants put pressure on prison budgets to fund higher education without federal help, and a race to the bottom began.

In 1995, New York State ended the practice of allowing those who are incarcerated in New York State prisons to take advantage of the Tuition Assistance Program. The combination of the loss of federal funding through Pell Grants and the loss of state funding through the Tuition Assistance Program essentially eliminated higher education within the New York State prison system.

Thankfully, one party unassociated with the New York State government's anti-education approach stepped in to attempt to fill part of the gap created by elimination of the governmental role in the education of those incarcerated in NYS prisons. Bard College established the Bard Prison Initiative in the aftermath of the 1995 decision regarding the Tuition Assistance Program. The Bard Prison Initiative runs college education programs in four New York State prisons and serves more than 100 incarcerated students on the path to receiving associates and bachelors degrees. It is an excellent example of how the private and non-profit sector can demonstrate the value of activities which the government should replicate and implement on a much larger scale. In this case, they remind us how much opportunity we have lost around our state since 1995.

As 2009 emerges over the horizon, New York State has a governor who understands the devastating impact that high incarceration rates have on communities and neighborhoods. He also understands that communities must prepare to welcome back those who have been incarcerated for years but who have been denied the opportunity to make the most productive use of their years in prison by investing in their own education.

At the federal level, the incoming President of United States represented an area not unlike Governor Paterson's former State Senate district when President Elect Obama was a State Senator in Illinois. These two chief executives have the benefit of first hand knowledge of the fact that our inadequate educational infrastructure leads to larger prison populations and that the best way to ensure that those leaving prison do not return is to fill the years of incarceration with educational opportunities. With that first hand knowledge, they will have the obligation to use their new-found power and authority to attempt to return higher education to the prisons of New York State and to all of the United States.

Higher Education in Prisons Benefits All of Us

All of us benefit when those who are incarcerated are able to invest in their own education. Crime is reduced, and recidivism rates are reduce as a result.

Studies have shown that recidivism rates are cut nearly in half when incarcerated individuals are beneficiaries of higher education. And, those studies have shown that the greater the level of education, the lower the likelihood of that individual returning to prison.

Former prisoners need jobs in order to be productive contributors to our society. With all of the enormous barriers they already face, achievements in higher education are an necessary piece of giving these individuals real hope of making good lives for themselves. That hope helps reduce crime and makes all of us safer. It makes the prisons themselves safer, and it will help us improve our economy, increase the number of taxpayers we have in New York State, and drive down the costs we all pay to house our fellow citizens in our state's prisons.

Our elected leaders must make the changes necessary to bring that hope back to our prison population, and we must demand that they do so.

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