State Lawmakers Renew Push for Inmates to Receive State-Funded Degrees

From inmates to alumni: advocates for those in New York's prison population are pushing the state to re-introduce funding to put prisoners through college. While it is not an expensive proposal -- advocates say it costs less than 1 percent of New York's Tuition Assistance Program -- as Geoff Redick reports, former inmates say the difference that education could make is priceless.

ALBANY, N.Y. -- When Charlene Henry moved from Schenectady to New York City in 2004, she did not imagine her next move would be to prison.

"I was convicted of selling drugs: crack cocaine," the former state prison inmate said. "They sentenced me seven years, flat."

Charlene got out in 2013, and she may have gone right back if it were not for the education she received on the inside.

"My passion is for helping people, and more under the umbrella of social work — and they actually offered a degree in social work," she said.

Charlene was educated under a private initiative from Bard College — a well-known prisoner degree program, that advocates would like to see replicated on a statewide level.

"Many of our legislators have been pushing for the reinstatement of TAP grant eligibility, for students who are incarcerated," said Glenn Martin, of the Education from the Inside Out Coalition.

Funding for inmate degree programs last existed in 1994, when it cost less than 1 percent of the state's Tuition Assistance Program. Updated to today's budget, that's about $9 million.

"What we estimate is, if the TAP funds were re-instated, that about 3,200 people could access the TAP funds," said Kim Gilhuly, of Human Impact Partners.

State legislators have already sponsored bills that would allow for the degree funding.

"To expand the human being by an education -- well that's what correction is about. And that's what prison should be about," said state Sen. Jeffrion Aubry, D-Queens.

"Them being educated means that they are more likely to become productive members of society, and to not return to the criminal justice system," said state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx. 

According to the coalition that held Tuesday's event, when a prisoner is educated and released, they are 51 percent less likely to return to state prison. Legislators say that is a number the state can no longer ignore.

Charlene is now a social worker for mentally ill and addicted men, at the Fort Washington Shelter.

"It was Bard that allowed me to be more of a critical thinker," she said.

More than just an inmate number, she says she is once again a mother -- and a human.

"It actually builds you as a person and builds on your character, and it becomes part of who you are. So when they say 'inmate,' I say 'alumni,'" she said.

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