Last month, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced a plan to resume state-funded college education programs for prison inmates. Never to be confused with anyone altruistic, Cuomo advocated his plan by telling voters to “(f)orget nice; let’s talk about self-interest. . . . You pay $60,000 for a prison cell for a year. You put a guy away for 10 years, that’s 600 grand. Right now, chances are almost half that once he’s released, he’s going to come right back.” In this case, Governor Cuomo’s ruthless pragmatism actually makes sense. So of course, Senate Republicans blocked it during last week’s budget resolution talks.
Unsurprisingly, the idea of doing anything nice for people who go to jail, let alone with taxpayer’s money, is a hard one for most so-called “law-abiding” citizens to swallow. Also not surprising is how non-partisan of an idea this is, as the only people who consider going to school a form of punishment are teenagers. Education is a privilege, and we don’t give privileges to people who do bad things, right?
The argument can essentially be reduced to this:
What people who believe this fail to grasp is that they’re being presented with a false choice, one that plays upon their selfishness. An overwhelming percentage of America’s prison population come from underprivileged communities, many of them communities of color, with pitiful access to educational resources. This is a universally contributing factor in the rise of incarceration rates. Free education in prison has been proven to reduce recidivism rates among released convicts, by providing them with skills that can prevent them from–get ready for it–falling back into crime to make a living or find community. In turn, this reduces taxpayer expense, by reducing the number of overall number of inmates over time. Everybody wins, unless your idea of winning involves denying people their rights.
The real reasons why educational debt is so high have literally nothing to do with the issue of educating our prison population. What’s really happening is that a) college tuition has skyrocketed over the years due to massive cuts in state and federal education subsidies, b) student loan lenders like Sallie Mae have rigged the game in terms of interest rates, as well as through immunity from credit default and bankruptcy filing, and c) the job market for college graduates (never mind the rest of us) is a fucking wasteland. Of course, if Americans didn’t have such a boner for punishing the disadvantaged, the people who stand the most to gain from a lack of prison reform–the police state, the judicial system, and the prison-industrial complex, among others–wouldn’t be able to ply such trite and worthless rhetoric on the general public.
As long as you can convince people that taxation is just another word for theft and to reduce convicts to the fly in the ointment of an otherwise polite society, you can convince them to build, whether literally or metaphorically, the pens that will inevitably cage them.