NEW YORK – A new report shows expanding access to college education for people in New York state prisons would not only benefit their health and well-being, but also their families, their communities, the prison environment, and ultimately all New Yorkers. The work by the Human Impact Partners and Education from the Inside Out Coalition is the first to focus exclusively on what health related impacts exist when currently incarcerated individuals have equal access to education, and has gained support from a collaboration of health, advocacy and criminal justice experts, as well as several New York State legislators.
“The sooner we realize that withholding access to education isn’t a punishment for the incarcerated individual, but a punishment for our society as a whole, the better off we will be.” said Vivian Nixon, Executive Director of the College and Community Fellowship. “It’s not enough to simply reduce the prison population. People need to come home to opportunities, and reinstating TAP funding eligibility to America’s incarcerated individuals will do exactly that.”
“In-prison higher education is one of the most effective strategies available in improving public safety,” said State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery of Brooklyn, who has introduced legislation to restore state-funded tuition assistance for people in prison. “It’s the right thing to do for people who are incarcerated, but it’s the smart thing to do for all of us.”
“We all benefit when more New Yorkers can access higher education,” said State Sen. Gustavo Rivera of the Bronx, a co-sponsor of the legislation. “The research is clear: providing access to higher education for incarcerated people leads to dramatic decreases in recidivism. That translates to increased public safety for our communities, lower costs for tax payers, and a chance for people to turn their lives around and improve the communities to which they are returning.”
The state’s Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP, provides grants to low-income New Yorkers to help them afford college. Until 1994, TAP and the federal Pell grant program helped incarcerated people enroll in courses offered in prisons by New York colleges. That year about 3,500 students in prison received assistance.
Grants to people in prison were a small part of TAP, less than 1% of its budget. But by 1995, TAP and Pell grants for incarcerated people were both eliminated, and in-prison college programs in New York almost disappeared.
Over the last ten years, the state corrections department developed a model in which colleges partner with prisons and seek funding from private foundations. But private funding is limited and hard to secure. Today, degree-granting programs in 21 of the state’s 54 prisons only have room for about 1,000 students. If tuition assistance was available, educators say these programs could serve up to four times as many students.
New York state is home to an estimated 105,000 children with a parent serving time in prison or jail. Having an incarcerated parent has been shown to have long-term negative consequences for the health of a child. Having a parent participate in college education while in prison can re-shape that dynamic.
The benefits of correctional education accrue not just to those released from prison, but those who continue to serve their sentences and those who work in prisons. The Correctional Association of New York credits college programs with “an incentive for good behavior; producing mature, well-spoken leaders who have a calming influence on other [incarcerated] people and on correction officers; and communicating the message that society has sufficient respect for the human potential of incarcerated people.”
The report found:
- College education improves formerly incarcerated people’s chances of getting a job, securing housing, reuniting with their families, finding their place in society, not committing new offenses, and not returning to prison. It teaches critical thinking skills, fosters better mental and physical health, boosts self-respect and self-esteem, and improves judgment.
- College education improves parenting skills, increases the likelihood that children of formerly incarcerated people get a good education, and reduces the likelihood that children will themselves become involved in the criminal justice system.
- College education means that when formerly incarcerated students return to the community they commit fewer crimes, are more likely to start their own businesses, and have a higher level of civic engagement.
- In-prison college education is a cost-effective investment in less crime and recidivism. Every $1 million spent on building more prisons prevents about 350 crimes, but the same amount invested in correctional education prevents more than 600 crimes.
The Health Impact Assessment recommends:
- Increase the availability of college programs in New York state prisons. Eligibility for Tuition Assistance Program funding for qualified incarcerated people should be restored. Both public and private institutions of higher education should be eligible to receive TAP funds, and all students should be required to be earning course credit that can be applied towards a degree.
- The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision should show support for college programs by provide appropriate space, security, technology, and needed resources.
- To provide stability for students and maintain their ability to participate in college programs, the corrections department should allow and honor educational holds to limit student transfers.
- To ensure the quality of college programs in prison, all providers and courses should meet rigorous academic standards.
The report is available at www.TurnOnTheTapNY.org.
 Conducted by Human Impact Partners of Oakland, Calif., in collaboration with an advisory committee of experts and advocates from the Education from the Inside Out Coalition, the Vera Institute, the Fortune Society, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and Syracuse University.