Most of the commentary regarding Cuomo’s initiative was, as expected, voiced in outrage. Those on my friends list questioned why their spouses college tuition couldn’t be paid, they wondered why we (us New Yorkers) were “rewarding” folks for being incarcerated, and (my favorite for its sheer absurdity) declared that perhaps they should assault Cuomo so they, in turn, could go to prison for free college.
It's time that we change the dialogue into one where we rationally consider the facts, and how we - as a collective - can better our society. Cuomo's initiative begins that work, but it isn't by any means proactive to the larger picture of a better world.
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Let me break this down – there is nothing about receiving an education in prison that is free. There is nothing glamorous about prison. It appears we have entered a kind of embellished naivety regarding what happens in these institutions. Dear readers, prison is not like Orange is the New Black. You don’t get to have steamy sex with that fierce hottie from down the cell block and spend the remainder of your day gabbing in the library, laughing over dinner, watching plays, and dancing. There is, however, one thing Orange gets right – you can expect abuse from your fellow inmates and, yes – from the correctional staff too.
Synthia writes the following of her time in New York State correctional institutions:
“I recently picked up my pen and paper and wrote to SPR because I needed someone to help me through my ordeals. I was happy to receive a reply. My name is Synthia [edited] and, I am a pre-operated transsexual who has been raped in prison by an inmate and a prison guard. The assaults occurred in two facilities, i.e., Elmira CF (1998 inmate sexual assault) and, Attica CF (2002 guard assault)…. I have been in prison with allot of people that society would just frown at for the crimes that lead them in here but, how about the crimes that happenes in here to us, individuals that don't deserve to get raped or sexually assaulted, or just the plain average Jane like me who gets convicted for others crimes and, because I wasn't a snitch, I get 25 years and, a bunch of wolves ready to rape me because they can't be released to rape an innocent woman.”
I may be far off base here, but if given the choice between an education I have to pay for or sexual assault – I would choose paying for my education every time. If given the choice between paying for my education and working long, tedious days were I receive roughly $0.25/hr. in compensation I would, without a doubt, choose paying for my education. If I had to choose between paying for my education and living every second of every day in fear, and carrying with me a fierce trauma for the rest of my life I would ---- yes, you guessed it ---- choose to pay for my education. This is not to say that some kind of binary choice exists, but to explain that free should not always be qualified by money.
I do not write this to shame you or to disregard your voice. Please understand that I DO understand your frustration. I understand the crippling debt we face when we make the choice to pursue higher education. I’ve been in the academic game for over seven years now … believe me; I feel the weight of student debt bearing down on me every day. I register what the dreaded monthly interest email says every time I open it. I stand in solidarity with you in regards to your frustration over your debt.
Yet, I cannot stand in solidarity with anyone who voices outrage at Cuomo’s initiative. Not only because our incarcerated face extreme violence everyday, and offering some ray of hope in the midst of the darkness seems the right thing to do, but also because we have been lied to.
This is something we need to talk about.
The prison industrial complex does not exist in the name of justice. It exists in the name of racism, exploitative labor of the most brutal kind, and to support our ever corrupt corporate industries.
In 2012 Black males were 6 times more likely than White males to face incarceration. Hispanic males were 2.5 times more likely. 59% of the African Americans who are disproportionately incarcerated are in prison because of a drug offense. This means, of course, that the majority of our incarcerated have made a mistake. I'm willing to wager that many of us have committed illegal blips from time to time, but social injustices prevalent in the structures of society means most of us weren't incarcerated for it. In short, those whom are incarcerated are not violent monsters we see in Hollywood crime shows, they are not to be feared - and must certainly not to be denied human dignity. Violence, slave-like labor, and rape are hate crimes that rob of dignity.
The prison industrial complex exists for the profitability of industry.
Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks, and Victoria’s secret have all utilized prison labor, and they are but some of many. The incarcerated make roughly $0.25 per hour for their labor, creating a system akin to the sweat shop and trafficking ring horrors we read of. This is condoned by the government and when education is offered it is decried by the population.
Yet, this is not the fault of the citizen – they have said what they were told to say. We’ve been indoctrinated to believe that prison is where the “bad” people went, the monsters and speak nothing ofs. Yet, we were not told it is a system created to perpetuate cheap labor. We were not told most of the incarcerated are there because of drug related charges. We were not told that the system was built on a history of extreme and violent racism.
Also, and perhaps this is the bit that will really get your attention, this initiative has the potential to cut recidivism rates from 40% to 4%. That means that the likelihood that New Yorkers would have to repeatedly pay $60,000 per inmate per year is drastically reduced. It also takes a devastating and much needed blow at the three-strikes policy that is, like the prison industrial complex, designed to stratify.
This stratification is plainly seen in our us v. them mentality. We ask why are THEY getting free education. Why are THEY getting health care? Why are THEY guaranteed food? What we should be asking is why isn’t the entire population guaranteed these necessities?
Currently, New York State harbors 54,100 inmates, but has a population of 19.57 million. In short, it is proposed that we offer free higher education to .03% of New York’s population, and we should. Education is directly linked to incarceration, because it is directly linked to poverty and the propagation of racism, sexism, ableism, etc… Here's what we should be saying ....
Yes, we should offer .03% of our population a free education, but we should also offer this opportunity to everyone. It makes for a better today and a much better tomorrow.
In the 1950’s many students went to CUNY institutions for free. In an effort towards comparison let us also note that the prison population in the 1950’s hovered around 160,000 inmates. The prison population in 2012 was, in dire contrast, 1,571,010. We know the sickening state of attending University, which has been caused by neoliberalism. These numbers illuminate not only the importance of education in eradicating the many poisons of our society, but also the relationship the prison population has with educational accessibility.
Of course the solution to the many issues I’ve posed here isn’t simply education – it would be a wonderful world if we could find a one-step solution to the goal of a more egalitarian and kind world, but we can’t. There are many steps we must take, and it begins with the abolishment of the us vs. them mentality that polarizes our society to a point where we fail to see the humanity, and the dignity, of those we were programmed to fear.