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Inmate Education Part 2: Weighing the cost of education versus incarceration

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Albany/HV: Inmate Education Part 2: Weighing the cost of education versus incarceration
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Many take issue with using public funds to provide free college classes for inmates, but as our Eva McKend reports in the second part of our three-part series Inmate Education, others say the cost of not educating them could be even greater over time.

WOODBOURNE, N.Y. -- It costs $60,000 a year to incarcerate a prisoner.

The governor says if the state adds another $5,000 to offer inmates a taxpayer-funded college degree, it will decrease the number of inmates in New York over time.

Not everyone shares his long-term vision.

"The road to hell is paved with liberals talking about how just one more dollar and then we can save the world. Everything will be puppies and rainbows," said state Sen. Greg Ball, R-Patterson.

The privately funded Bard Prison Initiative prides itself on bringing prisoners the same world-class education they provide for their students at the Annandale-on-Hudson campus.

"As you come into these classrooms, you never know what to expect and I'm often surprised at the innate ability of some of these students," said David Woolner, a BPI instructor teaching WWII history.

It's an education opponents say criminals don't deserve for free.

"Our tuition rates at are public universities are too high. The principal that everyone should pay something is very important, but I assure you these are men and women who have done a lot of paying for whatever they did," said Leon Botstein, president of Bard College.

SUNY Albany tuition for in-state students is up to almost $21,000 per year.

And there in lies at least some of the outrage, why should the public spend money on the incarcerated when some can't afford to pay for their own kids?

But the governor has made prison reform a priority. He also wants to raise the minimum age at which defendants are charged as adults.

"The reason that people fight against prison education is not economic. A symbol of their safety is the prison. I rather think a better symbol of the safety would be prevention of crime, not the prosecution of crime," said Botstein.

"Right now [New York is] number one in inmate cost, if we could go down to number two by reducing 10 percent, then I'd be willing to establish a program where we loan convicted felons money to get an education," said Assemblyman Kieran Lalor, R-Fishkill.

Over the past three years, the state has eliminated nearly 6,000 prison beds. The governor's office says closing prisons saves taxpayers millions of dollars.

They also say, this initiative, like the Bard program, is about incentivizing education behind bars, not discouraging it.

As Francisco Feria, an inmate at the Woodbourne Correctional facility, explained, "You can't fix society in just one small section. If you really want to fix a certain problem, you have to fix it as a whole and even though we are in here for long periods of time. Upon our release, we are still part of that whole."

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