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Cuomo: We're bringing college classes to New York's prisons

By Morgan Winsor, CNN
updated 9:58 AM EST, Mon February 17, 2014
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state will offer college-level courses at 10 New York prisons.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state will offer college-level courses at 10 New York prisons.
  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to give inmates the chance to earn a degree
  • The program will offer college-level courses at 10 New York prisons this fall
  • Cuomo on state's current incarceration system: "We have little to show for it"

(CNN) -- New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Sunday the launch of a statewide program to fund college courses in prisons, giving inmates the opportunity to earn a college degree.

The program, which will begin in the fall, will offer college-level courses at 10 New York prisons -- one for each region of the state. New York has 58 state prisons, according to Matt Wing, spokesperson for Cuomo.

During a news conference Sunday, Cuomo said this program is an investment in people before problems develop, rather than just paying for the damage after it occurs.

It costs $60,000 a year to incarcerate one person and about $3.6 billion in total costs for prisons, with a 40% chance of an inmate becoming a repeat offender, Wing told CNN.

"Albert Einstein had that famous definition of insanity, which is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. But for years, my friends, we have been doing the same thing over and over, and we have little to show for it. It's time we try something new," Cuomo said at the news conference.

Cuomo's program is based on a privately funded model started at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, which provided college courses in six maximum and medium security prisons across the state. Some 500 inmates were educated and 250 received degrees, and of those only 4% became repeat offenders. It cost $5,000 a year to fund one college education through the Bard program, according to Cuomo.

"The proof is in the pudding," said the governor.

But offering a funded college education to incarcerated individuals isn't exactly "new."

Pell grants, which provide financial aid to students in need, were made available to prison inmates in the 1970s. But in 1994, Congress passed legislation that eliminated Pell grant eligibility for inmates, and the following year, New York banned inmates from receiving state aid for in-prison education programs.

"New York state held onto a couple of small programs. But they were skeletons of what they used to be," said former inmate Glenn Martin.

Martin, 42, grew up impoverished in Brooklyn and spent six years in state prison. While serving jail time in Attica and Wyoming correctional facilities, a correction council suggested he apply to college.

"I've never experienced that. No one in my life had ever told me to go to college," Martin told CNN.

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After two years, Martin earned a bachelor's degree in social science from behind bars, with financial aid from a private philanthropy.

Now, Martin is the founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization aimed at reducing the national prison population in half by 2030. Martin is also the co-founder of the Education Inside Out Coalition, which seeks to return educational opportunities to incarcerated and post-incarcerated individuals. Martin said his exposure to a liberal arts education showed him how to navigate a world that he had never known how to manage growing up.

Martin said a statewide initiative to fund correctional education is a "win-win" for everyone in New York and hopes other states will catch on.

"You save money and you save lives," he told CNN. "You build the communities that are most impacted by crime and incarceration."

CNN's Chris Kokenes contributed to this report.

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