Cuomo's inmate education plan receives mixed legislative response

Feb 18, 2014

In opposing the governor's tuition plan for prison inmates, State Senator Mark Grisanti says more assistance is needed for those who made better life choices.
Credit WBFO File Photo

Governor Andrew Cuomo wants more prison inmates to go to college, but the plan has not sparked enthusiastic support among state legislators.

The governor's premise is that a year in prison ($60,000) costs about as much as Harvard while a college degree program costs around $5,000 a year.

"Giving men and women in prison the opportunity to earn a college degree costs our state less and benefits our society more," said Governor Cuomo. "New York State currently spends $60,000 per year on every prisoner in our system, and those who leave have a 40 percent chance of ending up back behind bars. Existing programs show that providing a college education in our prisons is much cheaper for the state and delivers far better results. Someone who leaves prison with a college degree has a real shot at a second lease on life because their education gives them the opportunity to get a job and avoid falling back into a cycle of crime."

State Senator Timothy Kennedy said he's willing to listen to the governor's arguments during the budget debate.

State Senator Mark Grisanti said it's a bad idea.  While there have been so many cuts in college aid for those who lead upright lives, Grisanti says free college for inmates is unfair to those who have worked for careers.

"I mean, do you want to send a message that 'hey,  it's better so you don't have any student loan debt, go commit a crime, get a sentence of three years and go ahead and have your tuition paid for and get a college degree'. Absolutely not," said Grisanti.

Cornell University is responding favorable to the Governor's suggestion. Cornell said the "Cuomo prison college plan is "good dollars and sense."

Cornell University has been teaching college classes in Upstate New York prisons for well over a decade. 

Mary Katzenstein, an expert on prisons and recidivism, Milman Professor of American Studies at Cornell University and former director of the Cornell Prison Education Program, hails New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s initiative to fund college education for prisoners.

“Governor Cuomo’s recently announced proposal to fund college classes in New York State prisons is one of a host of groundbreaking bipartisan measures now rolling off the desks of legislators this past year.  In a year when Grover Norquist, Newt Gingrich, Ed Meese and others are championing the downsizing of mass incarceration, and on the heels of former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik excoriating the failures of a prison system that simply warehouses, Governor Cuomo’s announcement is part of a broad rethinking about how to make ‘corrections’ correctional," said Katzenstein.

Grisanti said in his years as a criminal defense lawyer almost none of his clients made much use of the existing educational programs inside prisons and few even had graduated from high school.

The Buffalo Republican said it's mostly those on probation who straighten out their lives through education.

State Senator George Maziarz is also critical of the proposal.

"Thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers are working long hours, cutting back on expenses, and saving every penny to be able to afford a college education for themselves or their children.  These New Yorkers know that a college degree is a ticket to career success in today’s workforce.  They also know that it doesn't come cheap," said Maziarz. 

Senator Maziarz said for the state to "demand that taxpayers foot the bill for the college education of prison inmates is a huge slap in the face to those families who are playing by the rules and struggling to make ends meet so they can have a brighter future."    

Maziarz is promising that he and other members of the state Legislature will work to defeat the measure.