Drug Policy Alliance Applauds Gov. Cuomo’s Plan to Give College Education to Prisoners

NEW YORK—(ENEWSPF)—January 12, 2016

By: Anthony Papa

On Sunday, Governor Andrew Cuomo reintroduced his proposal for New York State to fund college for prisoners. Two years ago he bravely tried to convince people that prisoners should be afforded the opportunity to receive a college education while in prison. But critics shot the idea down quickly arguing that prison is a place for punishment and prisoners should not be allowed to get a free college education while families struggled to put their kids through school. This was said despite several studies that showed the more education a prisoner would acquire the less probability he or she would return to prison.

Now according to the New York Times Governor Cuomo introduced his new plan using $7.5 million criminal forfeiture funds from Cyrus Vance Jr, the Manhattan district attorney, along with matching funds from private donors. I applaud the governor for his actions because I know how important receiving an education while in prison is.

While serving a 15 to Life sentence for a non-violent drug crime under the Rockefeller drug laws I received three college degrees while imprisoned including a master’s degree from NY Theological Seminary which was paid for from private donations. When I was released from prison after serving 12 years when I received executive clemency by then Governor George Pataki I easily found gainful employment with a law firm and became litigation paralegal for Fish & Neave. The job helped me maintain my humanity and kept me walking on a straight and narrow road. It has been 19 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.

Many studies, even one conducted by the New York State Department of Correctional Services, have demonstrated empirically that people 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. As the former Chief Justice Warren Burger stated: “To confine offenders without trying to rehabilitate them is expensive folly.”

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.

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.

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