hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues May 2022


After 27 years, state restores tuition aid for inmates

Some area colleges set to offer more programs


Contributing writer


Every year since 1999, New York lawmakers have introduced legislation to make state college tuition grants available to students incarcerated at prison facilities.

And every year, until this year, the legislation never made it out of committee.
Inmate education advocates rejoiced when Gov. Kathy Hochul, in her State of the State speech in January, somewhat unexpectedly pledged to restore tuition funding for the incarcerated, which the state had rescinded in 1995.

“That was a signal that there was going to be a sudden change,” said Stephanie Bazell, director of policy and advocacy for College & Community Fellowship, an organization based in New York City that advocates for education of incarcerated women.

Bazell’s organization led the Turn on the Tap Coalition NY, a statewide alliance of advocacy organizations that sought to restore inmates’ eligibility for funds from the state Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP.

Advocates rejoiced even more when the change was included in the new state budget that Hochul signed April 9.

“There are extraordinary things that open up when you have the opportunity for education in prison,” Bazell said.

Reinstatement of inmate TAP funding will add momentum to the rebuilding of inmate education programs that nearly vanished when the federal government stopped providing Pell grants to the incarcerated in 1994, and the state stopped providing TAP grants in 1995.

In 1994, the number of inmate tuition-aid programs in the nation dropped from 700 to fewer than 10, and in 1995, the number of programs in New York dropped from 70 to four, according to Turn on the TAP.

The movement gradually rebuilt some of these efforts, funded with private grants and, in recent years, a federal pilot program that demonstrated enough success that the Congress reinstated Pell grants for the incarcerated last year.


College courses at local prisons
Currently, college programs are offered at 34 state correctional facilities, according to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

Locally, SUNY Adirondack offers a program at Washington Correctional Facility in Comstock, Bennington College offers a program at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, and Ashland University Pilot College offers a program at Hudson Correctional Facility in Hudson.
Bard Prison Institute, established in 1999 by Bard College, has operated for many years in six correctional facilities, with about 300 students enrolled. With the reinstatement of Pell and TAP grants, the program will open in a seventh facility ­— and increase from one to three the number of facilities where bachelor’s degree programs are offered, said Jessica Neptune, the institute’s director of national engagement. The other facilities will continue to offer associate degree programs.

Bard also will be able to increase its technical assistance to colleges and other organizations as they develop new inmate education programs or expand existing ones, Neptune said.

“TAP along with Pell Grants provides a baseline of stability that will give comfort to new programs working to launch, and gives older and more established programs some existential comfort as well,” she said. “But the history lesson from the loss of Pell and TAP in the 1990s and its return all these years later is the need for diversified funding streams going to a diversity of institutions of higher education doing this work, so that the field is never again vulnerable to the decimation of college opportunity in prison, should political winds once again shift.”

It is too soon to say how many new programs will open as a result of the state reinstating inmate tuition grants, said Sara Alpert of Hudson Link, another organization in the Turn on the Tap Coalition.

“It often takes time to create a new program by building partnerships between college providers and individual facilities to prepare for the logistics of running a college program in prison,” she said. “The hope is that with the reinstatement of Pell and TAP, we will see expanded programming in facilities, and the increased resources will allow current programs further to build program quality for a holistic approach to college in prison.”

Area legislators have mixed views about the change.
Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, said she supports the change, as long as inmate college programs have the same enrollment requirements as a traditional college.
Incarcerated students must have a high school diploma or a general equivalency diploma to enroll, which is actually more stringent than some community colleges that have open enrollment.

“I would like to think that every incarcerated individual, when they have completed their sentence, would walk out into the community having made good use of their time,” Woerner said in a telephone interview.

State Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, has expressed opposition to the change, characterizing it as a case of misplaced priorities by the Legislature’s Democratic leaders.

“It’s another example of how the actions of this legislative majority … since 2019 have prioritized the needs of criminals and those that are incarcerated, those that have taken from society,” Stec said in videotaped remarks on the Senate floor, posted April 9 on his Senate office Facebook page.

Stec said that instead of reinstating inmate TAP grants, the state should have allocated the funding to increase the maximum household income of $80,000 for those receiving traditional TAP grants — a threshold that has been in place for 22 years.


Better outcomes, lower costs
Inmate education advocates say the change will actually save the state money, because inmates with a college education have a greater sense of self-worth and a greater chance of gainful employment after release. As a result, inmates who complete college studies are less likely to commit new crimes after their release.

In the overall prison population, about 40 percent of released inmates in New York return to prison, while among those who complete college courses while incarcerated, the return rate is only 3 percent, said Andre Ward, associate vice president of the David Rothenberg Center for the Fortune Foundation, a New York City think tank that focuses on inmate rehabilitation issues.
The Turn on the Tap Coalition estimates that 1,578 incarcerated students, or about 5 percent of the state’s prison population, will receive TAP assistance, costing about $5.2 million, or less than 1 percent of the overall TAP budget.

Taking into account the reduced recidivism among inmates who complete college studies, the state’s estimated return on investment will be between $21 million and $26 million, advocates estimate.

After more than two decades in which efforts to restore inmate TAP funding appeared stalled, Bazell, of College & Community Fellowship, attributed the coalition’s sudden success to several factors.

For one, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2014 and 2016 had unsuccessfully proposed establishing a separate inmate education program using funding from the Manhattan district attorney’s office. When those efforts failed, he did not want to risk any more political capital.
“He then had a sort of reluctance to lose it again,” Bazell explained.

Hochul, on the other hand, was starting with a clean slate legislatively and was willing to take the political risk, she said.

In addition, criminal justice issues have been receiving stronger attention nationally in recent years, which helped lead to the federal government’s reinstatement of Pell grants for incarcerated students. Thirty-one other states had reinstated state-level education assistance for inmates, leaving New York legislators “kind of embarrassed” at being behind the trend, Bazell said.

She said some legislators also were swayed when the New York State Association of District Attorneys endorsed the idea of restoring TAP funding for inmates.
District attorneys recognized the role of education in rehabilitation, said Washington County District Attorney Tony Jordan, a Republican who is president of the statewide association.
“The statistics were really across the country, not just in New York,” he said.

Jordan said the inmate tuition-aid program won’t take away funding from students on the outside who are eligible for traditional TAP grants.

“This doesn’t erode the money that is available for others in TAP,” he said.