The experiment is whether the children of the people the children of the whole people can be educated: and whether an institution of learning of the highest grade can be successfully controlled, not by the privileged few but by the privileged many.
Horace Webster, the first President of the Free Academy, 1849
For more than a century, the state of New York has provided quality higher education to generations of poor and working class Americans. In 1847, when the New York State legislature created the Free Academy or what would become City College, its primary goal was to offer economically disadvantaged students an academic curriculum comparable to that provided to Ivy League students.1 The founders of City College, and later the City University of New York and the State University of New York, firmly believed that affordable higher learning would foster economic opportunity and civic responsibility. They trusted that higher education would produce citizens who would actively and productively participate in the nations democracy, thereby ensuring a stable, civilized society.
Today, New Yorks commitment to higher education has fallen short of the founding principles of its public university system. Spending on education in New York has endured crippling cuts over the past decades, as budget deficits and allocations for crime control and prisons grew to consume a lions share of public money. Since 1988, the operating budgets of the states public universities have plummeted by 29%, leading to higher tuition across the board. During the same period, the states prison spending burgeoned by 76%. In 1994, for the first time in its history, New York State spent more public dollars on prisons than on public universities.2 Between 1979 and 1999, per capita state spending on prisons grew 117% while per capita spending on higher education dropped 22%.3 Advocates for higher education funding say this will only become bleaker as an economic downturn could cause states, strained by the loss of revenue, to cut budgets for college funding to pay for increasingly expensive prisons.
Despite the promise of equal access to education, black and brown communities particularly those most isolated and disenfranchised today are seeing more of their young people enter prisons than college. Twice as many Blacks and Hispanics are held in prison today than are attending the State University of New York. Since 1998, more Blacks have entered the prison system for drug offenses each year than have graduated from SUNY with undergraduate, masters, and doctoral degrees combined. Nationally, the numbers are equally discouraging: five times as many black men are presently in prison as in four-year colleges and universities.4
The growth of prisons and prison spending in New York has mirrored the national trend to control crime and incarcerate more people. As the U.S. prison population grew to historical proportions in the past three decades, the Empire States inmate population followed, rising from 10,000 in the 1970s to 70,000 today.5 Despite the declining crime rates, the incarceration trend has continued to spiral uncontrollably, fed by tough-on-crime attitudes and the political rhetoric of the War on Drugs. This war, and the media frenzy it fueled, has contributed to Americas disproportionate preoccupation with the fear of random violence and what many believed to be the failure of the criminal justice system to punish criminals. In the name of public safety, state and national leaders have justified the priority to build more and more prisons at the expense of classrooms. They have led voters to believe that their personal safety require sacrifices in virtually every area of public spending, including education, when in fact, education has proven time and again to be the indisputable tool for crime reduction and public safety.
The distorted public priorities practiced by state and national leaders are rooted firmly in a convergence of events that began in the 1960s. As crime rates and public unrest grew significantly in that period, Republican politicians and later Democrats came to see crime as an issue they could exploit to capture the attention of American voters. Tough on crime rhetoric became an easy way to win votes. Richard Nixon first used this strategy on a national level to position himself as the law and order candidate during the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights Movement and anti-war protests of the Vietnam era. In New York, the legislature passed the Rockefeller Drug Laws in1973, promising mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses and creating a model strategy for the War on Drugs. New Yorks law spawned a generation of harsh and fixed mandatory sentencing measures nationally, including Californias Three Strikes and the Truth in Sentencing schemes adopted by many states.
In such a climate, the media has played an influential role in molding the publics perception of crime and its support for punitive criminal justice policies. The consolidation of media and the tremendous corporate pressures on media to attract viewers or sell newspapers have produced a pitched level of crime coverage that has only heightened public fears. We have all heard the saying, If it bleeds it leads. No evening news or tabloid is complete without its share of sensational crimes and acts against humanity. Given this steady diet of mayhem, the result is a public more enthusiastic and sometimes eager to extend criminal sanctions to a broader range of anti-social behavior such as drug use and mental illness and less willing to consider the possibility of rehabilitation. In one striking example, researchers found that during the period when states increasingly passed laws to try youths as adults, television coverage of juvenile crime during that same period had increased by 473%, even though the number of juveniles charged with homicides in that time actually decreased by 32%.6
Buttressed by the media, proponents of tough-on-crime policies believed that such policies would ensure the publics safety while improving a criminal justice system that they perceived to be too soft on criminals. It didnt seem to matter that during this same period, from 1970-1998, crime rates and incarceration rates did not always coincide.7 The result was that by 1994, when Governor George Pataki took office, New York State and much of the rest of the country, had more prisoners than existing prisons could hold. Not surprisingly, the race to punish also dictated a harsher attitude towards prisoners. By 1994, the US Congress and then the New York State Legislature had slashed federal and state funding for higher education in prison. In such a climate, higher education took a back seat to punishment.
Before the passage of the Rockefeller Drug Laws and other fixed sentencing policies, there were 10,000 people in New York prisons, 250,000 nationwide. Today, over 70,000 New Yorkers are incarcerated, 2 million nationwide.8,9 Mandatory sentencing guidelines were meant to standardize sentencing practices and restrict discretion on the part of judges. They, instead, have offered a one-size fits-all approach to sentencing that has fed the growth of prison populations nationwide. Under the Rockefeller laws, for example, a person convicted of selling two ounces of a narcotic must receive a sentence equal to that of someone who possessed four ounces of drugs a minimum prison term of 15 years to life. According to the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Services, nearly 80% of drug offenders who received prison sentences in 1997 had never been convicted of a violent felony and almost half had never even been arrested for a violent crime.10 Likewise, the majority of Americans entering our prison system today are non-violent offenders 52.7% in state prisons, 73.70% in jails, and 87.6% in federal prisons.11 Prisons in America no longer house only those charged with violent offenses; they now warehouse people who suffer from substance abuse, mental illness and poverty.
Women make up the fastest growing segment of the prison population. In New York and nationally, women have been incarcerated at nearly double the rate of men.12 Since 1980, the population of women in prison has increased 654%.13 As my colleague Leslie Glass suggests, and as the women in BHCF fully acknowledge, not all women prisoners are passive victims in the cycle of drugs, crime, and incarceration. Yet, it is important to note that the majority of women behind bars today are convicted of non-violent, drug-related offenses.14 Many women are convicted as accessories to a drug crime, i.e. for carrying drugs for their male partners.
Black women in particular account for a high percentage of women incarcerated today, their numbers reflecting the disproportionate representation of Blacks and Hispanics in prisons nationwide. In New York State, Blacks and Hispanics make up over 80% of the entire prison population, and they comprise more than 90% of those committed for drug offenses.15 Nationwide, 50 percent of all current U.S. prison inmates are African American, and another 17 percent are Hispanic.16 In contrast, African Americans make up 12.3% of the US population and Hispanics 12.8%.17 According to the Sentencing Project, one in three young black men between the ages of 20-29 are under some form of criminal justice supervision.18
To a great extent, the current level of incarceration is sustained by cycling people in and out of prison. Many inmates simply languish in prison, lacking quality services such as education, employment training, and drug treatment. Most are released to their communities without transitional support to acquire jobs, housing, health care and education. Recidivism and re-arrest rates are at an all time high. In 1998, New York State released 27,993 men and women from prison.19 The recidivism rate for that same year was 43.8%.20 Nationally, the figures are worse. Sixty-two percent of those released from state prisons will be re-arrested within three years. Forty percent will repeat the cycle, ending up behind bars again, only to be released... again.
Most people who end up in prison have received very little formal education; very few have a college degree with some exceptions at BHCF. It would be inaccurate to suggest that low educational attainment causes higher levels of criminal behavior or incarceration. But a disproportionate number of the incarcerated are undereducated. Recidivism studies have demonstrated repeatedly though perhaps not as eloquently as this study that those who receive a college education while in prison fare better when they rejoin society than those who do not. They are less likely to re-offend, more likely to find employment, and to become active and productive members of our communities. Some become leaders professors, CEOs, and even elected officials.
Far from a waste of taxpayers dollars, higher education in prison is an investment in our public safety. It enables those who have been cast off to rejoin us as responsible neighbors and productive co-workers, giving us all a chance to live in a more stable, civilized society. By supporting college education in prison we are reminded of the cause championed by the founders of New Yorks public universities long ago: higher education can open minds. In prison, it can change lives.
Helena Huang - Open Society Institute