'Attica University': Should U.S. Prisoners Get a Free College Education?

Is a free education in prison really free? CSA-Archive
Is a free education in prison really free? CSA-Archive


College debate competitions don't usually grab national headlines, but this wasn't your average debate. On one side was a team of three undergraduates from Harvard, arguably the best university in America. On the other side were three inmates from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility, all serving serious time for violent offenses. 

The odds were heavily stacked against the prisoners, who lacked internet access to prepare their arguments, not to mention being locked up all day. But in a scene ripped from a Hollywood script, the prison team won

How? The prisoners, it turns out, weren't underdogs at all. They were part of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), an educational outreach project of Bard College that's been granting a free college education to convicts for more than a decade. 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was so impressed by the impact of the Bard Prison Initiative that he proposed a statewide program to provide free college courses at 10 New York prisons

But Republican state legislators fiercely opposed the plan, sponsoring a petition titled “Hell No to Attica University.” GOP state Sen. Greg Ball summed up the opposition to free college education in prison: “As some are unveiling ‘Attica University', millions of New Yorkers right now are wondering how the heck they are going to pay student loans and help their kids go to college." 

In the face of vocal opposition, Gov. Cuomo dropped his plan to use taxpayer money to fund the college programs in prison. But the question remains: Is taxpayer funding for prison education really such a bad investment? Could “Attica University” actually be the best solution we have to breaking the cycle of crime? 

The Numbers: Prison Education and Recidivism

In 2010, the Bureau of Justice Assistance in the U.S. Department of Justice sponsored a study by the nonprofit RAND Corp. into the effectiveness of prison education programs. The statistics from that report make a convincing argument for the power of education as a strong deterrent against repeat offenders.

education program
Education Secretary Arne Duncan chats with inmate Alphonso Coates who is enrolled in an education program at a local prison in Jessup, Maryland.
Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

According to the RAND report, inmates who participated in a prison education program — vocational, adult basic education, GED or college — had 43 percent lower odds of recidivism than prisoners who did not take education classes. That translates into a reduction in the overall recidivism rate of 13 percentage points. 

That's not a surprise to Sean Pica. An ex-convict himself, Pica earned his GED and college degree while serving 16 years in a New York State prison. Now he's the executive director of Hudson Link, a nonprofit organization that offers free college courses inside five New York prisons, including the legendary Sing Sing. 

“At Hudson Link, we've been doing this for 14-and-a-half years and produced more than 400 college graduates,” says Pica. "We've only had three students go back with new crimes.” 

The Bard Prison Initiative boasts a recidivism rate of 2 percent compared to New York State as a whole, in which 40 percent of inmates commit a new crime after release. 

The Cost: College vs. Incarceration

The biggest gripe against Gov. Cuomo's plan was using taxpayer money to give a free college education to convicts while law-abiding citizens struggled to afford college. 

The truth is that taxpayers are already paying a hefty price to house, feed and clothe prisoners. In New York, taxpayers shell out $60,000 per inmate per year, which is double the national average

The RAND report looked at the cost to provide education to all prisoners based on versus the reincarceration costs for the 43.3 percent of prisoners who end up back in prison within three years of release (based on actual participation statistics). Since recidivism rates are considerably lower for prisoners who receive an education, reincarceration costs are also considerably lower. According to RAND, the total savings for three years of reincarceration for just those 100 hypothetical inmates was nearly $1 million. 

So are prison education programs a good investment for states? To quote the RAND study: “For a correctional education program to be cost-effective, we estimated that a program would need to reduce the three-year reincarceration rate by between 1.9 and 2.6 percentage points to break even.” 

If you remember, RAND found that education programs reduced recidivism by 13 percentage points. 

The 'Free' Education Myth

Some prison reform advocates have a real problem with the notion that a prison college education is somehow "free."

“When we say ‘free,' it means that inmates aren't paying anything out of pocket, but they're still locked up,” says Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center. “If you say to the average person on the street, ‘Sure, you can get a college education. You just have to go to prison for four years. It's free, though!' How many people would take you up on that offer?” 

For Sean Pica, the executive director of Hudson Link, the positive societal impact of college prison programs is immeasurable. 

“When they're released, 95 percent of New York inmates return to the communities in which they lived in six to eight years,” Pica says. “How do you want me to come back to the community, as the messed-up kid who made poor choices and hurt people, or as someone who made some changes, did some introspection, got an education, gained some critical thinking skills, and maybe even a vocational skill? That's the guy you want back.”