Our prisoner’s dilemma


By Nick DAngelo

Our current prisoner’s dilemma bears little resemblance to the game theory model proposed by Flood and Dresher in 1950. It is less theoretical, to be sure, but remains just as important in dissecting and understanding human behavior. The central question in this model: should our tax dollars subsidize college education for inmates?

That’s the proposal of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who announced over the weekend that he would advocate making state funding for prisoners’ education a reality. The cost of tuition for prisoners would be $5,000 and would be paid by the state.

Prior to 1994, federal and state dollars had been provided to increase educational opportunities for inmates. However, the Democratic President Bill Clinton cut prisoners’ access to federal Pell Grants in 1994 and former Republican Governor George Pataki eliminated prisoners’ access to the Tuition Assistance Program in 1995.

The hope for education programs like these is that, by investing in the futures of inmates, we will be able to curtail the re-incarceration rate. A study by the Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri found that released prisoners who find a job are 46 percent more likely to avoid returning to prison, which could save up to $2.7 billion nationwide in prison costs. It is believed that higher education attainment could provide the means and motivation to gain a job, build a stable life and avoid future prison time.

The thought is a worthy one. After all, as Kathy Boudin of the Columbia University School of Social Work said in 2012, “When college was removed, instead of having a line of people walking to school, we had people sitting up in the day rooms playing cards, playing dominoes, getting in fights.” And we can only assume that behavior continued after they left prison.

That may explain why Boudin, who benefited from the education funding as an inmate at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, went from domestic terrorist to Ivy-League academic. But, I’m not sure I’d want to take classes on social justice from a woman who assisted in the murders of three individuals.

The counter-argument is a two-tiered moral one, though. Firstly, do prisoners deserve educational opportunity after the crimes they have committed? Secondly, why are taxpayer dollars working to subsidize prisoner education to a paltry $5,000 when the cost of education continues to rise for the average, non-criminal student?

According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition paid per year for a state institution is roughly $22,000, whereas the average cost of tuition paid per year for a private institution is approximately $44,000. And this is the price tag for students after financial aid, scholarships and grants are included.

Most students will spend the majority of their adult years paying off student loan debt, with thousands of dollars in interest added to the heavy load. Meanwhile, condemned criminals will be earning college credit for no cost as they pay off a separate debt to society.

In 1999, the Cornell Prison Education Program was established, and in 2008 tuition and fees were waived for inmates earning Cornell credits. Incarcerated criminals will earn the same degrees we do with none of the cost, seemingly rewarded for their detrimental actions. It’s a process that seems to laugh in the face of justice.

At the same time, though, we have to understand the declared purpose of prisons: to rehabilitate individuals in order to allow them to reenter society. In an America where a college degree is becoming a prerequisite for even the most menial jobs, education is an important variable in the process of reintegration.

Mary Katzenstein, a Cornell professor who has taught inmates, explained the stakes in black and white terms. With 95 percent of inmates due to reenter society, “Do we want people coming back to our neighborhoods who have had a chance to learn the kind of analytical skills and be exposed to the ethical values that a liberal arts education is able to impart?”

The answer is obviously yes. All of us at Union should know the value of a liberal arts education. But that does not make the answer to the dilemma any easier.

As this proposal moves through the New York State Legislature you can bet on a raucous debate, and for good reason.

At the center of this argument are the basic tenets of fairness, justice and entitlement. Some say such a program will offer unmatched opportunities to inmates, but criminals should not be at the center of the debate at all.

It should be about the well-being of society—another dilemma to add to the dilemma.



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