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April 10, 2014

Notable NY Times op-ed asks "What is prison for?"

The new Marshall Project's editor in chief, Bill Keller, has this lengthy op-ed in this morning's New York Times under the headline "College for Criminals." There is much of note in the op-ed, and I found these closing paragraphs especially intriguing:

Considering that the United States is the world’s leading warden, we should be able to answer with some conviction this question: What is prison for?

First, punishment, although it is often demeaning, brutal, psychologically debilitating and wildly disproportionate to the offense.  Second, public safety.  Social scientists argue about how much of our recent decline in crime is attributable to a surge in incarceration (I’ve heard estimates from 3 percent to 30 percent).  But common sense says at least some of it is.

Third, rehabilitation.  The bureaucracies that run prisons are called departments of “corrections” for a reason.  This is at least as important as the first two purposes, because nearly 95 percent of the incarcerated are eventually released back into society.

Alas, nearly half of those released are returned to prison within three years for committing new crimes. Clearly we are not doing a good job of “correcting.”

This is not a bleeding­heart cause.  Leading conservatives and red­ state politicians have supported prison college programs as a matter of public safety and fiscal prudence.  A RAND meta­analysis of 58 studies concluded that inmates who participated in these programs were 43 percent less likely to return to a life of crime; even assuming that the most redeemable inmates are the likeliest to sign up, this is an incredible return on a modest investment.  Moreover, wardens and prison guards believe such programs lower the explosive tensions in prison.

Yet while 76 percent of prisons in the country offer high school diploma programs, only a third offer college degrees, which are, more than ever, a prerequisite for decent jobs. Education programs are among the first things to go in a recession.  Now — when the economy is in slow recovery, the crime rate is relatively low, and there is an emerging national awareness that our way of punishment wastes money and lives — should be an opportune time to expand inmate education.  But it has to be sold, not sprung without groundwork.

Experts who have studied the American way of crime and punishment far longer than I have tell me, to quote Michael P. Jacobson, a veteran corrections official who heads a public policy institute for the City University of New York, that they see “almost a complete disconnect between what we know and what we do.”

“The influence of high­profile crimes, fear of crime, issues of race, the acquisition of cheap political capital — all have had far more influence on criminal justice policy than what we know works, or what is fair or just,” Mr. Jacobson told me.

Governor Cuomo is now trying to rally private donors to underwrite his college program for a year, with an understanding that he will get the state to take over in Year 2.  Let’s hope. But apparently the inmates of Sing Sing and Attica are not the only ones in need of correction.

April 10, 2014 at 11:17 AM | Permalink


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talk about a waste of money. just what use is getting an education in prison when the very fact you were in prison pretty much means you can't use any of it once your out. Except to become a BETTER criminal.

between mandatory background check to pump gas and new laws every year that further restrict them. Why bother.

might as well put them all on welfare and pay em to stay home. Hell we do the same with farmers when we pay em to NOT grow something.

Posted by: rodsmith | Apr 10, 2014 8:14:20 PM

An excellent and timely article which I hope will inform and stimulate both intellectual debate and action. Just as there is a hunger for education in less developed countries where education has been denied for so long, so there is a similar hunger in many who find themselves in prison. It may be their first real opportunity in life to engage in education, away from the family and peer pressures which may have held them back before. The benefits come not only from the practical success of achievement, but in the restoration of self-worth that is generated. That is an essential building block in rehabilitation and successful reintegration into society, which should be at central to the aims and ethos of any prison regime.

Posted by: peter | Apr 11, 2014 5:14:17 AM

With all due respect, Peter, your paragraph was obviously written by someone who has never worked in a prison.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Apr 11, 2014 9:09:08 AM

Because prisons are big business. The purpose is to keep criminals coming back. We made a NEED for prisons so that makes a NEED for prisoners. In New York Governor Cuomo announced he wanted to bring college classes to prisons. He is aware that it's a proven tool for recidivism. Voters don't like criminals however, so it is not surprising that lawmakers have been falling over themselves to condemn Cuomo's proposal. It's not fair, they say, that inmates should get a free education while law-abiding people have to pay tuition. Prisoners also get free food, housing, heat, lights, clothes and medical care. Most don't protest these free perks because the cost of imprisonment is seen as a way of keeping society safe. Yet, around 40 percent of people released from prison end up back in prison. In other words, they go on to commit more crimes and victimize additional innocent New Yorkers. They go on to drain $60,000 a year from New York's law-abiding tax payers. Shouldn't the Department of Corrections do more to encourage prisoners to "correct" their behavior? Education is the proven way. Among the people who earn degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative program, less than four percent return to prison. Perhaps this is because they are more employable. Perhaps it is also because, as the BPI website states, "Through rigorous study in the humanities, sciences, and the arts, BPI students discover new strength and direction, often fundamentally rethinking their relationship to themselves, their communities, and the world in which we live." The tuition is free, but the inmates still have to read the books, pass the tests and write the papers. This should help them become better citizens. Brian Fischer, former New York Commissioner of Corrections and Community Supervision, has said: "Education changes people. And, I think that's what prisons should do, change somebody from one way of thinking to a different way of thinking. It's the logical view of incarceration; going to prison is the punishment, once in prison it's the correctional institutions obligation to make (people in prison) better than they were." So why are they protesting ? New York, at least, is not one of the states that has signed agreements to maintain a certain number of prisoners — whether or not crime rates rise or fall — or pay fines to the for-profit prison companies that run their jails. (Google "low-crime tax" if you are interested in that phenomenon.) Even so, Cuomo faced opposition when he attempted to close prisons, even though the number of inmates in New York has dropped. One senator even went so far as to say: "We built an economy around these (prison) facilities and there's absolutely nothing, nothing to replace those jobs."
Cuomo rightly stressed that incarceration is not supposed to be a jobs program and pushed forward to close several underused prisons. He should not back down on this college tuition plan, which could make it possible to close even more. Governor Cuomo was shot down in using state funds to fund this program from pressure from legislators sadly.However he is still trying to find a way to fund it using private funds. Since most of upstate New York is supported by prison industry he has a long fight ahead of him.

Posted by: jlo1965 | Apr 11, 2014 9:16:26 AM

This bill should be named "The University Professor Full Employment Act."

NYS allows prisoners to take college courses already (I was the inmate/university liason at the last prison I worked). They just have to pay for it.

The graduation rate for the inmates was probably less than 10%. Keep in mind that they (well, their families) were paying for it, which means they were likely more motivated than an inmate going on the taxpayer's dime. The cost per student graduated would be enormous.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Apr 11, 2014 12:59:02 PM

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