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College behind bars? Lawmakers, students sound off on controversial proposal

By ANNA MEILER

UTICA, N.Y. (WKTV) -- Gov. Cuomo wants to decrease the prison population by providing inmates with higher education, but his plan is facing a lot of flack.

The idea is to make prisoners more productive members of society so they don't wind up back behind bars.

At the Oneida County Correctional Facility nearly 80 percent of the inmates that complete their Second Start program don't return to jail. It also has one of the most successful GED programs in the state.

"Anytime you can be educated, it increases the opportunities that you have in your life and gives you the opportunity to make better life choices, increases self esteem and for the most part in jail, it gives you something to do. Obviously the worse thing we can have are idle inmates. Idle inmates are always bad inmates because they think of things to do that aren't constructive so education is part of a holistic approach that we have," said Gabrielle Liddy, chief deputy at Oneida County Correctional Facility.

Gov. Cuomo hopes to take this idea to the next level- providing college education at ten New York prisons. Cuomo says this initiative is in the interest of taxpayers.

"A tremendous amount of money is wasted in this state keeping people in prison. It costs us about $60,000 to keep a person in a prison cell. What's worse is the recidivism rate is close to half. So we keep a person in a prison cell for $60,000 a year. We release them. Half of them come back for another $60,000 a year. It costs about $5,000 a year to provide educational services to that person in prison. The recidivism rate goes from about half to four percent," said Gov. Cuomo.

Local Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi understands the merit behind the proposal, but says the timing is wrong.

"If you look at the cost of public tuition for colleges and universities, it's going higher and higher so that's where our priorities should be is funding existing education, public school systems before funding prisoners to obtain college degrees," he said.

Many students at Utica College say they work hard for their education, so why should prisoners get it handed to them for free?

"I had to keep my head straight and I had to keep my grades good and I had to keep my life in order to get into this college and you're going to give people who messed up their lives a free chance to do that? Why aren't I being rewarded for that?" said Anastacia Faso, a sophomore at Utica College.

"I do work hard for my education. It's going to provide me with a better future. I don't disagree with them receiving an education, but I do think we should be a priority and they should help us out a little bit more first," said Clay Ardion, a graduate student at Utica College.

So, local Republican Assemblyman Marc Butler is asking residents to sign his "Kids before Cons" petition. Democratic Assemblyman Brindisi says there are other solutions to the prison population problem.

"Let's educate children when they're younger because studies show that early childhood intervention, early childhood education is going to cut down on the likelihood someone's going to go to prison later on in life," he said.

Gov. Cuomo expects to include this proposal in his amended budget later this week. Brindisi says this will make it easier for the governor to pass because in order to vote down the proposal, the legislature will have to vote down the entire budget. The deadline to pass the budget is April 1.

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