OP-ED: Governor is right; educate our prisoners

Politicians are always touting new ways to cut taxes. After all, who really wants to pay more money to the government in light of recent economic turmoil? Whether people are still talking about the economic crisis of 2008 or the economy in general, taxes are always a heavily-weighted topic of discussion.

Taxes are almost always a subject of debate between political parties, each stating it knows how to manipulate the economy in taxpayers’ favor. Most politicians’ promises to affect change are just political hogwash, however; I think New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is one politician who offers a great solution to reducing taxpayer spending.

This grand solution? Drumroll, please? Educate our prisoners.

A lot of people think providing funding for prisoners’ to access free higher education is a preposterous idea. Just imagine this scenario.

A local straight-A student from Rye gets into her dream school, but worries about how her family will pay for tuition. Her parents are so pressed for money they consider taking out a second mortgage on the house.

Now, imagine a cold-blooded murderer who stabbed his ex-girlfriend to death because she cheated on him receiving a free college education while serving time. Doesn’t this enrage you?

If the thought of an upstanding citizen facing more difficulty than a murderer in financing her education curdles your blood, then your reaction is completely normal. In fact, this anger is due to the turning-on of your moralization switch. Prominent psychologists would agree the moralization switch triggers anger at this example because of our natural inclination to inflict harm on those who we feel violated the basic moral code. The desire for retribution angers us because education is a privilege, and prison is a place of punishment.

But, while this idea of educating prisoners might seem crazy and infuriating at first, there’s actually a lot of evidence to support it.

First, multiple studies demonstrate there is an extremely high correlation between education level and risk of incarceration.

Can you believe third grade test scores are used to determine how many prisons to build? It’s shocking, I know.

While it will take years of policy making and deliberation to try to combat the problem of disparity in education, what we can do right now is seek to educate the prisoners that are currently in jail.

What good can this do, you say?

Well, prison education programs have consistently shown high success rates in terms of lowering recidivism rates. This basically means if an incarcerated individual is provided with schooling while in prison, they are less likely to return to prison in the three years after their release. Educated prisoners are clearly able to function better in society upon their return. While, presumably, most people probably don’t care about how an ex-prisoner adjusts to society, what they may not realize is a good adjustment means he or she won’t return. When a lot of prisoners don’t return, this means the jails have a smaller burden. This is great for two reasons: decreased taxpayer costs, and a safer society.

Let’s look at Westchester County Jail, which houses approximately 750 inmates. The cost of each inmate’s stay amounts to around $60,000 a year. This is alarming considering that’s essentially the price of college tuition at a private university. For this same amount of money, we could be financing education programs instead, which could easily decrease the resources allotted to prisons.

A decrease in the number of prisoners circulating through the incarceration system means a significant reduction in the amount of money the government and, subsequently, Westchester taxpayers, have to spend on prisoners’ housing and food.

In addition to the economic benefits stemming from funding prison education programs, there are social upsides as well.

Educated prisoners are more fit to re-enter society because receiving an education increases their self-esteem and confidence. This confidence boost makes them more likely to find a job and lead a stable life. The resulting decrease in recidivism rates signals a major improvement in compliance with the law. Obviously, these prisoners are doing their part by being citizens that contribute positively to their communities.

For some strange reason, despite these amazing positive impacts, the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1994, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, decided to ban federal funding for prison education programs. This cut in funding led to a severe decline in the number of prison education programs.

But the Bard Prison Initiative manages to continue providing free education for prisoners in New York. It runs on private donations, but prisoners who took part in this program have a recidivism rate of less than 2 percent.

In looking at the Bard Initiative as a gleaming example of what can be, Gov. Cuomo is leading us in the right direction. He’s able to turn off his moralization switch so he can accept the objective success of prison education programs.

Gov. Cuomo’s resolution to reinstate funding for prisons in New York is important because it will affect everyone. It’s up to us as taxpayers and citizens of Westchester to support Gov. Cuomo. If we reinstate education funding for prisons, we will be contributing to the development of a safer society while saving tax dollars. As citizens, it’s our responsibility to partake in the great democracy that our country was founded upon by vocalizing support for prison education.

Christine Nelson is a first-year student at Columbia University, planning to major in political science and philosophy, and a graduate of Rye High School. The opinions expressed are hers.