How 'Attica University' Could Reap Rewards for New Yorkers

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy cnn.com

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has sparked controversy after proposing to fund a college program for state prisoners that has demonstrated success at reducing recidivism.

New York state prisons house around 55,000 prisoners.  Recidivism is a major problem.  Around 40 percent of prisoners who are released end up back inside prison walls.  With one year's incarceration costing about $60,000 per year in New York state prisons, that's a huge drain on state resources.

In an attempt to address this problem, Attica prison has been running a college program in association with Bard College since 2001, with 275 inmates currently enrolled.  Inmates can take individual classes or a full degree program, and the programs are conducted with the same thoroughness as those on campus.

The success of the Bard Prison Initiative speaks for itself.  To date, over 500 inmates have taken classes, and 250 have graduated with degrees.  These successes include many who could never have expected to achieve academic success in their home environment.  Ex-students of the program have gone on to successful jobs and careers, and even to attend graduate schools, including Columbia University and Yale.

Perhaps more impressively, the rate of re-incarceration for those who have taken classes has fallen ten-fold to just 4 percent, whilst for those who graduated with degrees that rate falls even further to 2.5 percent, a sixteen-fold reduction in recidivism as compared to non-participants.

Recognizing the benefits of the program, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo included $300,000 in funding in his 2014-2015 budget proposal, suggesting competitive tendering from a number of colleges to run the program.  Bard College has been operating their initiative using private funding.

Critics, including Republican state senators, have rallied against the funding proposal, and have even started a petition to oppose it.  They argue that the citizens of New York should not have to pay for convicts to attend college, especially when many law-abiding New Yorkers are struggling to pay for their own or their children's education.

Perhaps it's these naysayers who need to enroll in a course of basic math, as their arguments just don't hold up to financial scrutiny.  If the 275 prisoners currently enrolled in the Bard Prison Initiative were to be released without having had the opportunity to study, one would expect 110 (40 percent) to return to prison at a cost of $6.6 million per year to New York state citizens.  Results since 2001 however show that having attended classes, with a recidivism rate at just 4 percent, only 11 would be expected to return to prison.  Taking into account the $1.4 million cost of the college program for those 275 prisoners, the net savings to New Yorkers is almost $4.6 million per year of incarceration avoided.  That's a 330 percent return on investment, or put another way, enough to pay the full tuition costs of almost 800 students at the State University of New York.  And that doesn't include taxes and other benefits to the state economy from having those ex-prisoners gainfully employed.

With returns like these, wise citizens of the great state of New York should be throwing out the petitions and encouraging Gov. Cuomo to invest more in such programs.  With around 55,000 inmates in New York state prisons, the potential financial savings are enormous.  To learn more about the Bard Prison Initiative or the research behind educating America's prisoners, visit Prison Education News.

(First published by BlogCritics.org; used by permission)