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New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has sparked controversy after proposing to fund a college program for state prisoners that has demonstrated success at reducing recidivism.

How ‘Attica University’ Could Reap Rewards for New Yorkers

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has sparked controversy after proposing to fund a college program for state prisoners that has demonstrated success at reducing recidivism.

New York state prisons house around 55,000 prisoners. Recidivism is a major problem. Around 40 percent of prisoners who are released end up back inside prison walls. With one year’s incarceration costing about $60,000 per year in New York state prisons, that’s a huge drain on state resources.

In an attempt to address this problem, Attica prison has been running a college program in association with Bard College since 2001, with 275 inmates currently enrolled. Inmates can take individual classes or a full degree program, and the programs are conducted with the same thoroughness as those on campus.

The success of the Bard Prison Initiative speaks for itself. To date, over 500 inmates have taken classes, and 250 have graduated with degrees. These successes include many who could never have expected to achieve academic success in their home environment. Ex-students of the program have gone on to successful jobs and careers, and even to attend graduate schools, including Columbia University and Yale.

Perhaps more impressively, the rate of re-incarceration for those who have taken classes has fallen ten-fold to just 4 percent, whilst for those who graduated with degrees that rate falls even further to 2.5 percent, a sixteen-fold reduction in recidivism as compared to non-participants.

Recognizing the benefits of the program, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo included $300,000 in funding in his 2014-2015 budget proposal, suggesting competitive tendering from a number of colleges to run the program. Bard College has been operating their initiative using private funding.

Critics, including Republican state senators, have rallied against the funding proposal and started a petition to oppose it. They argueed that the citizens of New York should not have to pay for convicts to attend college, especially when many law-abiding New Yorkers are struggling to pay for their own or their children’s education.

Perhaps it’s these naysayers who need to enroll in a course of basic math, as their arguments just don’t hold up to financial scrutiny. If the 275 prisoners currently enrolled in the Bard Prison Initiative were to be released without having had the opportunity to study, one would expect 110 (40 percent) to return to prison at a cost of $6.6 million per year to New York state citizens. Results since 2001, however, show that having attended classes, with a recidivism rate at just 4 percent, only 11 would be expected to return to prison. Taking into account the $1.4 million cost of the college program for those 275 prisoners, the net savings to New Yorkers is almost $4.6 million per year of incarceration avoided. That’s a 330 percent return on investment, or put another way, enough to pay the full tuition costs of almost 800 students at the State University of New York. And that doesn’t include taxes and other benefits to the state economy from having those ex-prisoners gainfully employed.

With returns like these, wise citizens of the great state of New York should be throwing out the petitions and encouraging Gov. Cuomo to invest more in such programs. With around 55,000 inmates in New York state prisons, the potential financial savings are enormous. To learn more about the Bard Prison Initiative or the research behind educating America’s prisoners, visit Prison Education News.


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About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis, a writer currently incarcerated at FCC Petersburg (Medium), is an impassioned and active prison education advocate, a legal commentator, and a prolific writer of books, book reviews, and prison law articles. While living in federal prison at various security levels, retaliations for his activism have earned him long stretches in solitary, or "the hole." While in prison, he has earned numerous academic, legal, and ministerial credentials. Christopher is very knowledgeable about prison-related legal issues, prison policy, federal regulations, and case law. He is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014) and thePrison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016).The Federal Prison Handbook is an IndieReader Discovery Awards winner. A regularly featured contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Prison Legal News, the nation's most prominent prison law publication, Christopher has enjoyed significant media exposure through appearances with the Wall Street Journal's Market Watch, Vice.com, Salon.com, In These Times, The Jeff McArthur Show, The Simi Sara Show,TheCommentary.ca, 88.9 WERS' award-winning "You Are Here" radio segment, and The Examiner. Other articles and book reviews appeared in The New York Journal of Books, the Kansas City Star, The Sacramento Bee, Blog Critics, Midwest Book Review, Basil and Spice, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, AND Magazine, Truth-Out.org, Rain Taxi, and the Education Behind Bars Newsletter, with content syndicated by the Associated Press, Google News, and Yahoo News. He established three websites: PrisonEducation.com, PrisonerResource.com, and ChristopherZoukis.com, and was a former editor of the Education Behind Bars Newsletter. In 2011, his fiction won two PEN American Center Prison Writing Awards for a screenplay and a short story. He taught a popular course on writing and publishing to over 100 fellow prisoners. Today Christopher is successfully working on a Bachelor's Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies (Business/Law) from Adams State University. Following his 2016 graduation, he plans on attending Adams State University's MBA program. He regularly advises fellow prisoners and prison consultants about legal issues and federal regulations governing the Federal Bureau of Prisons operations. Upon release he plans to attend law school and become a federal criminal defense attorney. Christopher will not allow incarceration to waste his years or halt the progress of his life. He began his prison terms as a confused kid who made poor decisions but is today determined to create a better life. "We can't let the past define us," he says. "We have to do something today to make tomorrow what we want it to be."

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One comment

  1. Great piece – just one correction. BPI does not operate at Attica, but is at 6 other medium and maximum security prisons across New York.