The watch tower at the Auburn Correctional Facility is a far cry from Cornell's clock tower, but the two institutions have built a working relationship through CPEP.

Education during incarceration: local efforts echo Gov. Cuomo’s vision

By the time Raymond Roe was released from prison in 2008, he had been behind bars for more time than he had even been alive before being sentenced. With mounting bills, a new baby at home, and a troubled past, he committed three robberies that he would immediately come to regret. Several months later, he found out he would serve 15-41 years at the Auburn Correctional Facility.

Now, 24 years later, Roe is working as Mobile Unit Assistant for the American Red Cross. He was able to take college courses while still in prison as part of the Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP), and now serves on its Board of Directors. The program teaches about 100 inmates each year at the Auburn and Cayuga Correctional Facilities.

Last month Governor Andrew Cuomo announced an initiative to fund college programs throughout New York State prisons. Rob Scott, the Executive Director of CPEP, applauded the plan.

“This is a game-changing initiative,” Scott said. “After two decades of depriving incarcerated adults of the opportunity to pursue post-secondary education, New York is prepared to lead by example in putting its prison classrooms back to use.”

Financing the Guilty?

However, the plan’s announcement did not come without criticism.

Lawmakers opposing the initiative point to hard-working and law-abiding citizens who are struggling to make enough money for school. In effect they are asking, why should inmates get a free education while those who have not committed a crime cannot afford it?

Currently it costs an average of $60,000 to house an inmate. Adding college education programs would cost up to an additional $5,000, which taxpayers would fund.

Governor Cuomo has argued the overall cost of housing inmates would go down in the long-term with reduced recidivism rates that the education measure would bring.

“These people need jobs when they come back to their families,” Christine Bonilha, a former volunteer of CPEP, said. She agrees the benefits of programs like CPEP also apply to the greater community.

“There’s also a lot of gang violence within prisons, but with this program inmates need to have perfect discipline to be enrolled as students, which sets them as role models while in prison, and when they return to the community,” Bonilha said.

Changing the Prisoner Perception

Cornell is not the only higher education institution getting involved with the effort. Over on South Hill, several students at Ithaca College set out to film Beyond the Wall, a short piece profiling the success of Ray Roe with CPEP.

“I really hope it can be used as a point of critical thought, and actually get people to think and talk about these issues that are really uncomfortable,” Caroline Podraza, one of the producers, said.

Across the U.S., 2.3 million people are imprisoned – more than 90 percent of them will be released sometime in the future.

“Cornell University…has seen first-hand the wider benefits to our students, their families who benefit from their academic accomplishments, and the neighborhoods that will be better, not worse, for their return,” Scott said.

What do you think? Should a statewide prison education program be implemented? Sound off in the comments section below.

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