Prison college program claims low recidivism rate; critics call it Attica U.

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Attica Correctional Facility is shown on May 16, Attica Correctional Facility is shown on May 16, 2013. Photo Credit: AP

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ALBANY – A college program for prisoners, which supporters say has turned hundreds of felons into productive citizens while saving taxpayers millions, faces growing opposition by state Republicans who say scarce resources are needed for law-abiding students.

While the state spends $60,000 a year to keep a prisoner incarcerated and 40 percent of those released return to prison, the current college program costs $5,000. The recidivism rate for prisoners who take classes is 4 percent and the rate for graduates is 2.5 percent, said Max Kenner, who runs the program through Bard College.

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"When we provide people with this opportunity, people who you would never expect would excel academically often do," said Kenner, executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative.

Since 2001, the program awarded 250 degrees and educated more than 500 incarcerated men and women in a program just as rigorous as on-campus courses, he said.

About 275 prisoners are now enrolled. Graduates and those who completed courses not only didn't return to prison, but started careers, including some in social services, and attended graduate schools that include Columbia and Yale, he said.

But Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's endorsement of the program Sunday and his inclusion of it in his 2014-15 budget proposal is drawing fire. He plans to seek competitive bids from several colleges to operate the program.

Kenner said Bard, operating on private funding, can't continue for long without state funds, even though taking prisoners out of the prison cycle saves the state millions of dollars.

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"In a world of finite resources, where we are struggling to find funding for education for our kids, the last thing New York State should be funding is college tuition for convicts," said Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson). "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. Why not help them?"

Ball announced a petition drive against Cuomo's proposal, which will have to be approved by the legislature. Cuomo has no estimate of the total cost. But Kenner said $300,000 in the $135 billion budget would fund courses for a year for 60 prisoners.

"We have to cut recidivism rates, but we shouldn't ask taxpayers to pay more and more to do it," said Assemb. Kieran Michael Lalor (R-Fishkill). "Taxpayers can't afford more handouts."

Tuition for traditional students is $6,910 a year at the State University of New York and $5,800 at the City University of New York. For state residents, the total cost of attending SUNY or CUNY away from home is typically more than $21,000 a year.

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