May 2, 2014

Prison education falls victim to election-year politics

Advocates of educational programs in New York state prisons had their hopes lifted —and then unlifted — when Gov. Andrew Cuomo changed his mind about a program that would have provided education to inmates in the state.

On Feb. 16, the governor announced a plan for funding higher education in prison as an economically viable way of cutting the recidivism rate. He cited statistics showing that educational programs could reduce the return to prison for released inmates from 40 percent to as low as 1 percent. Mr. Cuomo had proposed creating publicly funded college programs in 10 state prisons. His office estimated the program would cost $1 million the first year out of a state operating budget of $2.8 billion — estimated at $5,000 per year per prisoner.

At a cost of $60,000 a year to house each prisoner, the savings could have risen to the millions, with the added benefit of producing former inmates with real-world job skills and educational training after serving their time.

“Every year at our graduations you can see the pride in the eyes of our students, their parents and their children. For most of them, this is the biggest accomplishment of their lives and the beginning of a new life,” said Sean Pica, executive director of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, cheering Mr. Cuomo’s February announcement.

But on April 2, despite positive press, and enthusiasm from law enforcement, lawmakers, prison officials and advocates for prison reform, the governor dumped the program. Lawmakers, particularly in New York’s Senate, were quick to point out that many law-abiding families are struggling to pay for college. What some editorial pages called a “win-win” in rehabilitating and reintegrating inmates back into society was suddenly a political liability.

In a year that he is up for re-election, Mr. Cuomo apparently did not want to give his opponent any ammunition for easy, gut-level topics that are more than just a sound bite. Politicians since Michael Dukakis know how dangerous it is to speak about prison reform at any level during an election; it was George H. Bush’s campaign ad depicting Mr. Dukakis as releasing Willie Horton “to rape and rape again” that played a factor in the Democrat’s 1988 presidential election loss.

In a Feb. 21 speech, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Rob Astorino blasted Mr. Cuomo for supporting educational programs for inmates. “That annoys me more than anything,” he said at a meeting of supporters. “He’s going to reward felons with a college career. I just told my 10-year-old you’re on a new career track. You’re gonna rob that bank at 18.”

Quick laughs, maybe, but an epic failure to look at a complex and demanding issue. Sadly, for the local organizations, clergy and volunteers who have seen the benefits of prison education, politics on both sides have once again destroyed a positive, beneficial program.

Ironically, prison education has always been a hallmark of an enlightened society, particularly in Bedford Hills, where there are now two facilities for women inmates. Long-termers benefited from Pell grants to inmates, a federal program that was eliminated in 1994.

In the years when these grants flourished, Bedford Hills developed a Children’s Center, an AIDS education and counseling program, and a family violence program. Imprisoned women worked with the CUNY Grad Center to research the importance of education to inmates and their children. The correctional facility’s beloved Sister Elaine Roulet not only established the facility’s highly praised children’s program but also spoke out for prison education and its benefits.

Today, government funding is even more limited, but private nonprofit organizations are working hard to pick up the slack. When Pell grants were eliminated, the superintendent and inmates worked with leaders in the community and educators to organize a consortium of private colleges to offer courses.

Katonah’s Rehabilitation Through the Arts began as a small theatre troupe in Sing Sing in 1996. Its founder and executive director, Katherine Vockins, oversees some 25 volunteer facilitators who teach the arts in five New York state prisons in the Hudson Valley, including Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. They coach inmates in Shakespeare studies, creative writing, poetry, dance, visual art, public speaking, music and, especially, theater, while also teaching social, emotional and cognitive skills. Ms. Vockins manages it all from Katonah with a modest budget from private and corporate foundation grants, individual donors and faith-based groups.

The program has been described as “a catalyst for learning, with participants earning post-high school degrees at a greater rate than those who didn’t participate in RTA.”

Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison has been administering college educational programs in New York state prisons for the last 15 years. Hudson Link is funded entirely by private donations and partners with five New York colleges — Mercy, Nyack, SUNY Sullivan, Siena and Vassar — to provide college programs inside five New York state correctional facilities, including Taconic Correction Facility in Bedford Hills.

Hudson Link was founded in 1998, currently has 334 incarcerated men and women enrolled in college classes and, through its partner colleges, has granted 303 college degrees since 2001. The three-year recidivism rate of the 168 graduates who have been released from prison is less than 1 percent, as compared to New York state’s rate of 40 percent.

In a report called “Changing Minds,” the authors wrote: “We understand the public’s anger about crime and realize that prison is first and foremost a punishment for crime. But we believe that when we are able to work and earn a higher education degree while in prison, we are empowered to truly pay our debts to society by working toward repairing some of what has been broken.”

Join Rehabilitation Through the Arts’ screening of “Amazing Grace,” a short film on an original musical created by prisoners and RTA volunteers inside Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, at the Katonah Village Library on Thursday, May 8, at 7 p.m. To RSVP, email

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the The Record-Review. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.

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