College plan for inmates has merit
Richard Smith’s business card informs recipients that he’s a doctoral student in the School of Social Welfare at the University at Albany.
What it doesn’t say is that Smith, 38, spent nine years in prison in Massachusetts.
When he began his sentence at 21, he was a dropout with poor reading skills and an eighth-grade education. But he earned his GED while incarcerated, which enabled him to take correspondence courses through Ohio University. He was later accepted into a prison education program run by Boston University, where he eventually received a bachelor’s degree.
“That experience was transformative,” Smith said. Today he works with at-risk youths at the Liberty Partnerships Program in Schenectady.
I met Smith earlier this month at the Jeffrey Wood Re-entry Center, an Albany-based program that helps ex-inmates transition to life outside of prison. I wanted to learn more about the barriers recently released inmates face when they return to society. What sparked my interest was Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s unpopular plan to provide prisoners with a college education.
I’m one of the few New Yorkers who see some merit in the governor’s idea.
In general, I support programs that can help prisoners better themselves.
Such programs can provide inmates with the training and education they need to be productive members of society, and ultimately reduce recidivism — the rate at which people who have been incarcerated return to prison. In New York, the recidivism rate is 40 percent. Would giving inmates access to college courses lead to better outcomes?
Since 2007, the state Department of Corrections has offered privately funded degree programs at 22 prisons. One of those programs is run through Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson. In an interview with Newsday, the program’s executive director said the recidivism rate for prisoners who take college courses is 4 percent and the rate for graduates is 2.4 percent.
In the weeks since it was unveiled, Cuomo’s proposal has proven extremely unpopular.
Critics have questioned why higher education should be free to criminals when hardworking students are taking on tens of thousands of dollars in debt to attend state universities.
One of the more thoughtful responses came from Assemblyman Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie, who said that while “all of us want to see those in prison emerge to become good citizens and positive contributors to the community, the governor’s proposal goes too far and is inappropriate.” Noting that it took him more than 15 years to pay off his college loans, Lopez said, “As a compassionate society, we can offer entry-level vocational training,
counseling and even help with job placement, but affording them college instruction goes too far.”
Complaints about the high cost of college are legitimate, and the state’s seeming lack of interest in making it more affordable is unfortunate.
But outrage is not good public policy, and it will not keep ex-prisoners from recommitting crimes and returning to prison. And prisons, like it or not, are funded by taxpayers. According to the governor’s office, it costs New York $60,000 a year to house an inmate in prison, while it would cost $5,000 annually to educate an inmate.
Darryl Johnson serves as outreach coordinator for the Center for Law and Justice, the nonprofit organization that runs the Jeffrey Wood Re-entry Center. When asked what the No. 1 challenge facing ex-inmates is, he was blunt: “Jobs.”
“There are jobs, but [ex-inmates] are not trained for the jobs,” said Johnson, an ex-prisoner who served time for selling drugs. Some prisoners do emerge from prison with skills and credentials, such as a certificate in building trades. But they often struggle to find people willing to hire them.
College isn’t for everyone, Johnson said. “Not everybody is going to benefit from college,” he said. “But then you’d hope they could find a meaningful trade.”
Smith wondered whether taxpayers might be more open to funding college education for prisoners if inmates were required to perform some form of community service upon release. “What if every semester you complete, you have to commit to a certain form of community service?” he said.
I also met 56-year-old Angel Rolon, who spent a total of 35 years in prison for robbery, at the Jeffrey Wood Re-entry Center.
When Rolon arrived at prison, “I didn’t know how to read and write,” he said. “I was a functioning illiterate.” But eventually he earned his GED, took college courses and became a paralegal. “I needed tools to make myself a better person,” he said. “If a prisoner gets the opportunity to become a better person, he will not commit another crime.”
Despite his education, Rolon has struggled since his release in February 2013. He remains unemployed and spent time in a drug treatment program after relapsing. He attributes his failure to find a job to “the fact the people always look at your record. I can’t change my past.”
Prisoners tend to be unpopular, even in the best of times. And with unemployment still fairly high and wages stagnant, these are not the best of times.
That’s why I sympathize with critics of the governor’s college-prison proposal and question whether the program should be 100 percent free. Perhaps Smith is on to something when he suggests that community service might be required of those who benefit. Maybe inmates should be required to pay back at least a portion of the cost of their schooling once they find a job.
We pay a high price when ex-prisoners fail to transition to civilian life. Not every inmate is college material. But for some felons, college could really make a difference.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.