A year ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed instituting college degree programs in state prisons, using taxpayer money. Although a few decades ago this was a fairly common practice around the country, it died out after a 1994 law stating that federal Pell Grants could not be awarded to prison inmates.
But Cuomo was quickly forced to drop his proposal after a backlash from NY citizens and legislators. Three of New York’s Congressional Representatives even introduced a bill called “Kids Before Cons” opposing this kind of funding, saying: “It’s an insult to hardworking taxpayers who follow the law that they should be expected to provide free college degrees for convicted criminals. […] Our children should be placed above convicted criminals.”
This kind of us-versus-them rhetoric exemplifies one of the biggest psychological contributors to America’s out of control prison system. The bill operates on the assumption that “taxpaying citizens” and “convicted criminals” are mutually exclusive; two disparate classes of human that never converge. There are two problems with this ridiculous logic:
1. It betrays the American obsession with a smug and abstract idea of “punishment”— and this is at the expense of actual rehabilitation, which is obviously the goal for any prisoner not serving a lifetime sentence (AKA most prisoners). Prison education and other forms of rehabilitation were shunned in the late 20th Century; but now we know that they dramatically reduce rates of repeat incarceration by helping to prepare inmates for a viable life after prison. Indeed, a 2013 joint report by the Department of Justice and the RAND Corporation found that “inmates who participate in correctional education programs have a 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not.” The connected decrease in criminal behavior would obviously make the public safer (which is the whole point of paying for prisons in the first place). And these returns on investment are extremely economical: by paying a small amount to educate a prisoner now, taxpayers are more likely to avoid future re-incarceration costs that would be four times the amount of tuition.
2. Plenty of convicted criminals have been hardworking taxpayers at some point in life, and plenty of taxpayers have committed crimes for which they have gone unpunished. Labelling people as “either/or” is incorrect and dangerous, furthering social stratification that oppresses underprivileged populations and holds them disproportionately accountable for legal infractions. In previous posts we talked about how arrests and sentencing in this country are corrupt with institutionalized biases that benefit wealthier white people over people of color. An incredible example of this is the Twitter hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite, which was created in the outrage following December’s court decision to not bring charges in the murder of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. The white users of this hashtag would admit crimes that they had committed, ranging from minor to moderate, that they hadn’t been punished for due to racial privilege. Sickening examples poured out, opening America’s eyes to the ugly truth of law enforcement today: police looking the other way when a white person committed a crime, only to arrest and harshly convict a person of color who committed the same or similar acts. One gets off scot-free, a righteous “law-abiding citizen” fit to be outraged by the idea of paying for inmate education; the other’s life is ruined, and his/her status as a human being is considered unworthy of repair.
The divisive rhetoric of NY’s prison education opponents not only makes no sense when compared with the evidence; it is also extremely harmful in the way it categorizes and ranks members of society, ignoring issues of biased treatment and scoffing at the redemptive purpose of incarceration. Criminality is already a subjective spectrum with roots in social inequality, and any effort to decrease that inequality through education is a clear-cut step in the right direction for everyone involved.
“Kids Before Cons” Act: http://reed.house.gov/press-release/reed-joins-introduce-“kids-cons-act
RAND and DOJ Report: http://www.rand.org/news/press/2013/08/22.html