The concept of providing college courses in prison or helping ex-offenders enroll, attend and graduate from college is a political loser.
Back in February, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed to re-institute college courses for those in state prison. He stated that more than 50% of ex-offenders return to the criminal justice system within 3 years of leaving prison. At a cost of $60,000 a year, that is a terrible return on public money. He said that GED and college programs would cost about $5,000 per inmate per year, and that those that take part in educational programs while incarcerated have a much lower rate of recidivism. Some people applauded the move. Polling showed that the proposal was supported by voters statewide by a 53-43 margin. The Governor engaged in a media tour and gave a strong interview on NPR.
Less than 2 months later, the New York Times reported that it was dead on arrival and that Governor Cuomo had dropped the ball. One legislator said “Hell no to Attica University,” while other representatives proposed a kids before cons act. Even though it made long-term economic sense and had a majority of public support, Governor Cuomo could not get it through the state legislature.
On Thursday, Governor Chris Christie stated that these programs had already been successful in NJ and that he supported their expansion. Unlike Governor Cuomo, Governor Christie did not propose spending any public money on the programs (this is becoming his new move: he supports a program/idea without putting any money behind it – like he recently did with prescription drug monitoring programs). NJ-Step is a privately funded program that provides education to prisoners and helps them transition to two and four year NJ colleges.
The press conference got a lot of coverage and received some of the same backlash as the New York program did. Over 60% of people voted that they were against it in an unscientific poll on NJ.com today. A cursory glance at the comments reveals the antipathy that many feel towards this issue (if one were to gauge the quality, morality, and empathy of humanity by reading the comments on news stories, one would almost certainly be discouraged).
As I wrote in the beginning of this post, the issue is a political loser. Democratic and Republican politicians are not only afraid of losing general elections but of getting picked off in primaries. These programs anger a significant portion of the electorate and are therefor extremely difficult for a politician to publicly support. It will require a skilled politician to rally bi-partisan support. There will need to be a long education campaign, and we will need ex-offenders to be the face of it.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with two of those faces over the last 4 years. Ben Chin will graduate from Rutgers later this month with a degree in Linguistics and a minor in Public Health. He has earned a 3.9 GPA and was selected for Rutgers Skull and Bones. He won the Truman Scholarship in 2013 and the Luce Scholarship in 2014. When you meet Ben, you will be welcomed by his smile, charmed by his personality, impressed with his ability and surprised by his humility. Ben was incarcerated from 2008 to 2010 in the Mountainview Correctional Facility. Ben got sober right before he went to prison in December of 2007. I met him in the fall of 2009 when I took a couple of Rutgers students into Mountainview in order to talk to people about addiction, recovery and education. Ben called me the day he got of prison and after a couple of interviews, we accepted him into the Rutgers Recovery House. In addition to being an exceptional student, Ben has engaged in service work. He has spoken to high school students around NJ, college students around the country and has been a public face of what recovery and education can do for ex-offenders.
Regina Diamond is another outstanding example. She graduated from Rutgers in 2013 with a Bachelors in Arts & Social Work. She completed her degree with a 3.9 GPA and a number of honors. Later this month, she will graduate from Fordham with her Masters in Social Work. She served several years in prison in her late 20’s because of crimes she committed in order to feed her drug habit. She finally got sober after her sentencing and went to prison in recovery. It would be two years before she could attend an AA meeting while incarcerated (there weren’t any offered). Her hopes were dashed when she was told that she missed the age cut-off to take college classes by a couple of months (that policy has since changed). She did not take any courses while in prison, but immediately enrolled in school upon her release. She has been sober for 10 years now and plans on giving back to society in a number of ways. She does not make any excuses for her negative behavior while under the influence of drugs, and she expresses deep gratitude to all the individuals and institutions that have helped her over the last several years.
Regina and Ben were the co-keynote speakers at the 2013 GCADA Summit in New Brunswick. They spoke openly about their journeys and earned a standing ovation. Their stories begin with a combination of bad decisions and bad luck and ultimately reach a pit of despair. They found (were led to) recovery and eventually made their way to Rutgers. They have achieved redemption and now seek to improve the lives of others by sharing their stories and serving as role models. Despite the fact that college for prisoners is a political loser and morally off-putting for some people (I do understand that position), it is an economic winner. It’s time to stop wasting money and throwing away lives. I believe in Ben Chin and Regina Diamond. I hope you will too.
Addendum (6/1/2014): Great article on a NY college in prison program that was featured in the Sunday New York Times.