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Cuomo Seeks Private Funds for “Prison University” Plan

HOST: When New York State approved its annual budget last week, it included a loss for Governor Andrew Cuomo–who had hoped to launch an initiative that would expand college programs in state prisons. Now, he’s asking private foundations and non-profits if they can fill the gap. Katie Toth reports.

If you’re an inmate in a New York State prison, you have a 40 per cent chance of ending up back behind bars. But prisoners enrolled in the system’s nineteen college programs? Their chances of returning are as little as a tenth of that number.

That’s why Governor Cuomo announced a plan earlier this year to the Minority Legislative Caucus. He said it was time for the state to fund college in 10 prisons across the state.

CUOMO: Let’s invest and rehabilitate people so that they have a future. That’s what works. (0:08)

The caucus applauded the plan. But some of their colleagues were unimpressed. Senate Republican Greg Ball of Brewster was one of them. He says expanding college for inmates is like–

BALL: –Pushing them through a program where they get a degree in basket weaving and have nothing that they can use. (0:05)

Ball says his constituents are having a hard enough time paying for university themselves.

BALL: We have kids, they’re drowning in debt, they’re living in their parents’ basement, they’re paying near credit card rates for student loans, and people were upset. (0:07)

When it was clear there wasn’t enough support, Cuomo dropped the plan from his executive budget. But he still wants it to happen. And the model he cites is a program run by Bard College.

KENNER: Having the endorsement for this issue by someone at the governor’s office is extraordinarily important for our work. (0:07)

Max Kenner is the founder and director of the Bard Prison Initiative, which brings courses to 6 New York State Prisons.

Kenner says, that if New York is serious about expanding programs like his–

KENNER: –We need state funding for this to be sustainable. (0:04)

Or, any funding. Which is why Cuomo is now saying he’ll ask foundations and private donors to step up.

But Dara Young, who runs the Center for Prison Education at Wesleyan University, says Cuomo may have a problem. And it’s the same problem that stopped him from getting government support in the first place:

YOUNG: Prisoners are one of the least sympathetic groups of individuals that fundraisers can be trying to work for.  (0:10)

Some foundations will pay for work like Young’s. But they’re not usually in it for the long haul. Philanthropists tend to see themselves providing seed funding for a great idea. Until a business, or government, steps in and makes it sustainable. That’s what Larry Kramer says. He’s the director president of the Hewlett Foundation–as in, Hewlett-Packard?  Kramer hasn’t been approached by New York, but he knows how philanthropists think.

KRAMER: The worst solution would be to say well since we can’t get government to act let’s get foundations to pick up the slack for us. Because it takes the pressure off of government to fix itself. (0:11)

Kramer says even if philanthropists wanted to act like political bandaids, it wouldn’t be the most effective use of their limited dollars. Take something like the Ford Foundation.  It has an eleven-billion dollar endowment, but it pales in comparison to New York State’s budget, which will spend 92 billion dollars in operating funds for this year alone.

KRAMER: Government has access to infinitely larger resources than foundations do. Right? I mean it just dwarfs what we can bring to bear. (0:04)

A source in Cuomo’s office says his colleagues are still trying to expand the program. They expect to present a new plan by the end of April.

Katie Toth, Columbia Radio News.

*Correction: Larry Kramer was referred to in this story as the Hewlett Foundation’s director in this piece. In fact, he is the foundation’s president.


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