Education helps inmates envision a life beyond prison and reduces recidivism
by Charles Anzalone
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposal to grant college degrees to prisoners behind bars is a good bet to break the cycle of a broken system with out-of-control costs and far-too-many repeat offenders, said Teresa A. Miller, a professor in the University at Buffalo Law School.
Miller has extensively studied and filmed inside New York state prisons, in particular Attica Correctional Facility. Miller's academic conference, documentary and 40th year reunion on the Attica prison riots attracted national attention because it brought together former prison officials and prisoners for the first time since the 1971 riot.
"The single most important factor today driving the reform of harsh criminal punishment is the exorbitant cost of maintaining a broken system," Miller said. "Currently, states are looking to reform the parole system, push college courses into prisons and decrease the heavy reliance of prisons on isolated confinement.
"When you consider that an inmate simply participating in a college program reduces his likelihood of reoffending after release by 46 percent, the impact of college coursework is impressive. When you consider that an inmate who earns a college degree in prison reduces his likelihood of reoffending from a national average of 60 percent to a mere 5.6 percent, the impact is astounding."
According to media reports, the governor plans to pursue the idea despite heavy criticism from skeptical taxpayers and Republican opponents. The governor cited studies concluding that education programs for prisoners drastically reduces recidivism, providing a strong incentive for prisoners and taxpayers alike.
Miller, whose extensive visits behind Attica prison walls have become detailed documentaries into the destructive forces preying on inmates and prison officials alike, said the average cost to state taxpayers to incarcerate a prisoner was $60,000 per year.
"College coursework appears to be not just the right thing to do, but a cost-effective means of reducing crime," she said. "For every $1 invested in education in prison, taxpayers save $2 in re-incarceration costs."
As someone who has worked for decades with people incarcerated in New York prisons, Miller said she sees "a palpable difference" between prisoners who take college-level courses and those who do not.
"Those prisoners exposed to academic such disciplines as psychology, philosophy and literature that expand their minds - well, they see 'past' prison," Miller said.
"Rather than live in the 'here and now' of cellblock social drama like so many young men and women who are locked up, these folks develop an awareness of a broader world of ideas and experiences that reorder their priorities," she added.
Miller said, time after time, prisoners who gain a broader perspective of their situation through college courses are easier to manage, and far less likely to get into trouble.
Most perks have already been eliminated from a prisoner's routine, Miller said. So, corrections officers often have very few ways to offer incentives for good behavior, beyond fear, intimidation and beatings.
"What type of prisoner would you prefer to return to the streets?" Miller asked.