Towards a sustainable model of prison education funding

Cornell University has been one of the most important players in prison education of late, stepping up to fill the major gaps created by stripping access to Pell Grants for prisoners back in 1994 and providing accessible degree and diploma programs to inmate across the state. The Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP) has received a three-year grant of $1 million from the Carnegie Mellon Foundation. But for every prison student able to enrol in CPEP, there are hundreds more unable to access the program due to funding insufficiency, and thousands more nation-wide in states where such programs simply do not exist.

The grant will allow them to expand their programs to reach a greater number of students and extend their curricula.  But while the announcement is being greeted with great enthusiasm from observers—from myself included—we also need to use such announcements as impetus to push even harder to get these programs public funding sources.

Whenever you seek to fulfil a public need with private donors you’re inevitably going to have to deal with the realities of philanthropic insufficiency. Any time you’re looking at individual grants, rather than a stable funding structure, you’re faced with the reality of programs—no matter how successful they are—ultimately coming to an end unless additional funding sources are found.

When we rely on private donors, there is necessarily going to be an uneven distribution of resources based on a variety of factors including geography and willingness of prison staff to embrace and/or seek out such programs. This means that places like CPEP are forced to make increasingly tough choices about who can access their services on a regular basis.

Charities of all kinds routinely go through low points that can have devastating impacts on the programs that rely on their contributions. For example, most charities experience a boom during the holiday months, but then suffer dramatically the 6 months after that when individuals are no longer as focussed on donating. And when natural disasters strike and the public orient their donations towards related causes, charities in other realms typically experience serious decreases. All of these fluctuations are, of course, to be expected. And they all highlight the reason why we cannot rely on such models to fund programs that require stability and sustainability to survive and thrive.

Just last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo was forced to drop plans for a comprehensive prison education program due to public pressure. The program would have amounted to an initial investment of $1 million, a fraction of the state’s prison operation budget of $2.8 billion. Given that it’s estimated that for every $1 spent on prison education, the state gains $5 in return, it made clear fiscal sense to target these funds for such a program. But it’s a case where emotions ran high—and in NY State’s case, those emotions overran reason.

For many years, prison education has been referred to as a kind of sociological “experiment” of sorts. But as with any scientific experimentation, the testing of hypothesis is designed to take us beyond the point of theory and allowing us to draw conclusions based on facts. And the facts are now clear: educating prisoners reaps dividends for society. We are no longer testing—the experiments have been a success. So at this point, choosing not to invest in prison education is, quite simply, denying the facts.

As I’ve noted before, those critics of public funding for prison education—like those who used abandoned facts for rhetoric to quash Gov. Cuomo’s plan—continue to pose the wrong question. We should not be asking why prisoners are being given access to education that is not available to non-prisoners, we should be asking why that education is not available to non-prisoners. Because ultimately those politicians who have actively campaigned against prison education are the same politicians who have done nothing to improve access to education for anyone

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