New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced that NYS will fund college for prisoners. He hopes that this will give those serving time in prison an opportunity to obtain a college degree which in turn will help end the cycle of recidivism. According to Cuomo since 2007, the NYS Department of Corrections has partnered with colleges including Cornell University and Bard to offer privately funded degree programs at 22 prisons. The newly proposed program will expand on that.
In 1995 Gov. George Pataki dismantled college programs in NYS prisons by taking away state aid for tuition. While serving time in prison I protested this by starting a campaign to reinstate state aid for college programs. I submitted a painting in the annual Albany Correction On Canvas Art Show which was run by the NYS Senate and the Department of Corrections with the hope it would generate media attention.
The piece I submitted was titled "God Bless You." The painting depicted a prisoner in a graduation robe in front of a cell. The tassel of his cap wrapped tightly around his eyes, mouth and throat, signifying the death of the educated prisoner. In the bottom corner, I painted a scroll with a Kairos document, which read:
We the imprisoned people of New York State, 85% of whom are black and Latino, 75% of whom come from 26 assembly districts in 7 neighborhoods in New York City, to which 98% will someday return, possibly no better off than when we left, uneducated and lacking employable skills, declare this Kairos in response to the elimination of the prison college programs, GED and vocational training programs and education beyond the eighth-grade level. The elimination of prison education programs is part of Governor Pataki's proposed budget cuts. It amounts to less than one third of one percent of the total state budget, but it will cost taxpayers billions of dollars in the years to come.
I went on to state that many studies, even one conducted by the New York State Department of Correctional Services, have demonstrated empirically what people know intuitively: that prisoners who earn college degrees are far less likely to return to a life of crime upon release. According to research conducted by the Department, of the inmates who earned a college degree in 1986, 26% had returned to state prison, whereas 45% of inmates who did not earn a degree were returned to custody. For many prisoners, gaining an education signals an end to personal failure and a ladder out of poverty and crime. Without it, the governor may as well change the name "Department of Correctional Services" to "Department of Correctional Warehousing." As the former Chief Justice Warren Burger stated: "To confine offenders without trying to rehabilitate them is expensive folly."
I ended the scroll by asking concerned citizens of New York State to contact their legislators and demand that the present range of prison education programs continue to operate for the benefit of the entire state. "God Bless You."
As someone who has received three college degrees while imprisoned I have to say that it's about time that college programs for prisoners are funded once again by NYS thus expanding the existing privately funded one.
Since my release from prison in 1997 I have fully utilized my education and have been a productive tax paying citizen. In 1985 I was sentenced to 15 years to life for a non-violent drug offense under NYS's Rockefeller Drug Laws. At that time I was lost when I entered the prison system but was lucky enough to participate in the existing two year college program hosted by Bronx Community College in Sing Sing prison.
Attending college in prison wasn't easy. Trying to study in my cell was virtually impossible. Radios played constantly. Prisoners would yell to each other from their cells, sometimes just for the hell of it. Conversations that started between two men soon included ten or more. It wasn't only the noise that made studying difficult; the prison's restrictions on basic academic materials added to the struggle. For example, before leaving the school, the guards would search our folders and books to make sure we weren't concealing contraband smuggled in by teachers. In the eyes of the administration, "contraband" could include anything from drugs to reading assignments that the officials considered inappropriate. One semester, the guards confiscated my spiral-bound notebooks that were filled with notes I'd taken and needed for an upcoming exam. The wire, they said, could be fashioned into a weapon. Fair enough, but so could a zillion other things in the prison. Despite the negative environment I went on to graduate the program and received my degree.
But this was only the start. My two year degree opened my eyes to the value of getting a college education. After that I received my B.S. in Behavioral Science from Mercy College, then went on to receive a graduate degree from New York Theological Seminary. I survived imprisonment because of my ability to transcend the negativity around me because of the rehabilitative qualities of a college education.
When I was released from prison after receiving executive clemency for Governor George Pataki in 1997 my reentry into society was eased because of my college education. But it was not an easy deal. When some people found out about where I got my college education they were not too happy. I remember going on a few television shows and talking about my college education. Instead of being happy for me they talked about how I got a free college education instead of being punished. My response was that I did not get a free education, I paid dearly for it serving 12 years in prison and I did everything I could to make a bad situation good.
Upon my reentry into society I was employed with a law firm and became litigation paralegal. When I got my first job it helped me maintain my humanity and kept me walking on a straight and narrow road. It has been 17 years now and I know from personal experience that a college education offered to someone in prison is not only lifesaving it is life changing.
My hat goes off to Governor Andrew Cuomo for advocating for college education for prisoners. Hopefully prisoners will take advantage of this rehabilitative program to help them survive their imprisonment and become productive citizens upon their release.