Bill Clinton and the Pataki administration made a huge mistake when they signed legislation in the mid-1990s that blocked state prisoners from obtaining a college education from their cells.
That’s the finding of a report released Friday by the Correctional Association of New York, a leading private, non-profit which keeps an eye on the state’s sprawling prison system.
Clinton signed a law in 1994 that denied inmates access to Pell grants, which help low income folks pay for college. And in 1995, Gov. George Pataki banned inmates from Tuition Assistance Program, aka TAP. That move effectively shuttered New York 70 in-prison college programs.
As a result, just eight of 16 prisons now offer higher education courses to inmates, and most of those are funded through private sources, such as the Bard College Prison Initiative.
The thing is, according to the report’s author, Jackie Ross, access to college classes simply makes better inmates. They are less likely to commit another crime, and they behave better in prison. Kind of makes sense, right?
One study found that inmates who got some college courses in prison committed a new crime 22 percent of the time, while those who did not were busted 41 percent of the time. Likewise, a 2007 study found that the system actually saves money, prisons are more peaceful and disciplined and the children of prisoners take education more seriously.
Ross and the association’s executive director Robert Gangi propose that the state expand public funding, lift the ban on TAP grants, expend access to education for former inmates, and require the Board of Parole to weigh college participation in deciding whether to release an inmate.
Erik Kriss, a spokesman for the state Department of Correctional Services, says the agency agrees that college courses are a good thing, but the current budget crunch is going to make it tough to find state dollars to expand the programs. The agency has actually proposed closing four minimum-security facilities and other facilities to save money.
Currently, he said, about 1,500 inmates out of about 60,000 receive college courses, mainly through private funding from colleges.
“We share their belief that providing those opportunities is a good thing for everyone, but we recognize that at this time, there are not a whole lot of state dollars to go around,” Kriss said.
Kriss said the commissioner is hoping to find other private institutions willing fund higher educations programs forinmates.Gangi acknowledges that the state’s budget crisis may cause a problem, but he hopes the Paterson administration will take up the
cause again. “Gov. Pataki was blocking it,” Gangi says. “There was no way we were going to be able to get it reinstated, so we waited for another administration.”
The full report is available here.