New York Gov. Cuomo's prison education strategy a meaningful step forward

By Christopher Zoukis

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

We are so excited to hear about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new prison education plan to keep New Yorkers away from the revolving door known as America’s prison system.

As widely reported by media this week, this forward-thinking governor announced a major policy proposal in a Harlem church last week and reiterated his comments Jan. 13 at another Harlem church dominated by blacks and Latinos, who make up a disproportionate number of prisoners in America.

Gov. Cuomo says he wants to give New York prisoners a fighting chance by giving the access to college classes to help them when they are released.

We are blown away by his insights, which specifically call for a reduction in the number of people who return to prison or keeping them from getting there in the first place.

"I'm going to go down in the history books as the governor who closed the most prisons in the history of the state of New York and I am proud of it!" Cuomo told media.

His wise proposals include:

* Investing $100 million to on failing schools to improve their education programs and policies.

* A $55 million investment in finding jobs and training urban and at-risk youth.

* Instead of sending convicted criminals to prison, alternative means should be be used by the state such a skill development and educational access.

* Offering state-sponsored college education courses for inmates. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. has earmarked $7.5 million for this initiative - ironically, from money seized from criminal activity. Another $7.5 million will come from private donations.

His comments echo what I have been been saying over my past nine years as an inmate at FCC Petersburg in Virginia. My family had the financial resources to support my fight for better education access, but I know I am one of the lucky few. And I deeply hope other political heavyweights heed the governor’s words: “I say when they're in prison, teach them a skill, give them an education.”

More words of wisdom from Public Advocate Letitia James: ”It's really critically important that we help people in prison get an education and skills that will help them find a job and live responsibly, so they can add to the tax rolls.”

A similar proposal by Cuomo was rejected by Republicans in Albany two years ago because some politicians thought the money would be better spent on childhood education, among other things. We understand early intervention is essential, but not at the expense of of prisoners languishing with few education options.

"As someone who earned a college degree in prison and came out to essentially lead a law-abiding life," said Glenn Martin, president and founder of Just Leadership USA. "I really can't understand why members of our Senate in particular don't understand why this is not a good investment."

My dream to see this take place not just in New York, but across the United States. But it’s a wonderful start, and a truly needed topic of discussion during this presidential election.

According to media reports, once the prisoner reform program starts, the classes will be offered through he State University of New York and City University of New York.

Cuomo is also apparently set to propose an extra $50-million US in funding for apprentice training programs for young people, which he says will give them needed respect and dignity.

You can read more about the statistics we've compiled, too, at www.prisoneducation.com/resources/prisoner-facts. Or, check out our in our Prison Research Papers for more insights.

Our hats off to this thought-provoking New York political leader, and we’re crossing our fingers that other politicians (at all levels of government) will soon follow suit. At the end of the day, all of America wins.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com, and PrisonLawBlog.com