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Prison Courses: Who Should Foot the Bill?

Is the purpose of incarceration to rehabilitate - or to punish?

Some say that's the key issue in the debate over college classes in prisons. But others target a more fundamental problem: money.

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"The question is simple," says Jim Flateau, a spokesman for the Department of Correctional Services in New York State, where all funding for college education for prisoners has been eliminated. "Taxpayers shouldn't be paying for it." Especially, say some, when high tuitions have ordinary families scrambling.

But Gerald Elmore, deputy superintendent of programs at the Wyoming Correctional Facility, disagrees. "I've got two kids in college but I don't want to see [the Niagara Consortium] program disappear. Speaking as a taxpayer I'm also looking at the $24,000 a year it costs to keep inmates in jail. We need the college program. It pays big dividends."

The dividends Mr. Elmore is referring to are reduced recidivism rates. Numerous studies support claims that education is effective in preventing a return ticket to jail. Wilmington (Ohio) College, says that recidivism rates for inmates who took degrees through their programs in two Ohio prisons are 18 percent versus a state average of 40 percent.

A Boston University program has tracked inmates in its program over a 25-year period, and says that for those who earned BU degrees while in prison, recidivism rates dropped to less than 5 percent, compared with the 65 percent national rate.

Proponents say pursuing college classes not only widens horizons and improves employment prospects, it also increases self-esteem and provides a sense of contact with the outside world.

David Decayette, an inmate working toward a degree at New York's Attica Correctional Facility, says the intellectual rapport he feels with his teachers allows him to shed a negative sense of himself. "The professor is not seeing me as the prisoner," says Mr. Decayette. "He's seeing me as the student."

Hilton Webb Jr., who earned his BS in social science at Attica earlier this year, says that the program has served to forge a somewhat more positive sense of relationship to the world outside the prison.

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The availability of the classes, he says, has been one of the few things during his time in Attica that has helped him to believe "that there are people out there who actually care that there are people in here."

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