NY senators oppose expanding inmate college

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ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Several New York state senators on Tuesday attacked Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to fund more college classes in prisons, criticizing spending on inmates ahead of other students in a tough economy.

Sen. Mark Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican, mounted an online petition against it. He said that followed calls, emails and Facebook messages he received against the proposal after it was unveiled on Saturday by the Democratic governor at the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus.

“I support rehabilitation and reduced recidivism but not on the taxpayer’s dime when so many individuals and families are struggling to meet the ever-rising cost of education,” said Grisanti, who wants funding restored first for graduate tuition assistance.

The petition, in its first three hours online, got 424 signatures, Grisanti counsel Doug Curella said. The petition and the senator’s Facebook page drew comments like Jeanine Baran’s: “How about free college for those on the outside?”

Cuomo’s program would offer associate’s and bachelor’s degree education at 10 prisons, one in each region of the state. Cuomo says it will reduce the likelihood of inmates returning to crime. He proposed spending about $5,000 a year for an inmate’s education, noting it already costs about $60,000 to incarcerate each of the state’s 54,000 inmates.

College classes already are offered at 18 of the state’s more than 50 prisons for limited enrollments and are almost entirely privately funded.

Bard College’s prison initiative at the Coxsackie, Eastern, Fishkill, Green Haven, Taconic and Woodbourne prisons in the Hudson Valley costs $5,000 to provide one inmate “a life-changing year of college education.” It currently has 275 inmates enrolled. Those students’ recidivism rate is 4 percent, compared with 40 percent for state inmates overall, the college said.

From a $300,000 investment to educate 60 inmates, Bard calculates state savings of $1 million annually from 21 fewer people sent back to prison.

Sen. Dean Skelos, head of the Senate Republican Conference and a co-leader of the coalition that runs the chamber, said Tuesday he opposes Cuomo’s plan. He doesn’t believe taxpayer dollars should pay for tuition for felons while families have to take out student loans to help their children go to college, spokesman Scott Reif said.

The Independent Democratic Conference and its leader Sen. Jeff Klein are studying the proposal, spokesman Eric Soufer said. Klein is co-leader of the majority coalition.

It was unclear if Cuomo will need the Legislature’s approval to expand the program, though many other lawmakers expressed support. The governor’s office said the state on March 3 will request bids from educational associations that provide college professors and classes in an accredited program.

Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who heads the Senate Democratic Conference, commended Cuomo for the proposal and said it’s something lawmakers need to look at further.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, said they will review it. Like Stewart-Cousins, he said it’s important to look at ways to reduce recidivism and help people return productively to society.

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