04/14/2014 02:35 pm ET Updated Jun 14, 2014

The Cost-Effective Hot Potato

I was pleasantly surprised when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's office announced recently a plan to reinstate college tuition programs for incarcerated New Yorkers.

Congress and the Clinton administration ended federal Pell grant funding for inmates in 1994 and two years later New York Governor George Pataki eliminated the state tuition assistance program for prisoners during the "tough on crime" wave. Some states have continued college prison programs, and private money funds a much smaller number like the one I teach in.

Cuomo has had the state's incarceration crisis on his radar since his first day in office, and his passion for the issue, I believe, was in part a matter of legacy. His father, Mario Cuomo, is credited with building numerous upstate prisons like the one where I teach, a decision he later called "stupid." I understood legacy -- I was likely teaching in prisons because my father had done it in my childhood. I remember he drove a car from the motor pool of the small southern university where he taught to a state prison two hours away to teach composition to inmates.

Last week's announcement of the governor's withdrawal of the initiative did not surprise me, but I am disappointed. Too much pushback from lawmakers, says his office, which means it's unpopular with constituents. In fact, a great majority of Americans feel college tuition for inmates is somehow immoral.

When I mentioned Cuomo's plan to a university colleague, she announced flatly, "I don't agree with Cuomo's program. I think our current students are more deserving of that money." I was a little stunned. "That's one way never to have your mind changed," I said. I have thought about that conversation a lot since, since it represents the thinking of so many. But it's a shortsighted, less-than-circumspect position. In the long run, educating incarcerated people is in everyone's interest.

Certainly men and women in correctional facilities have victimized their neighbors, often violently. But Robert F. Kennedy spoke of another kind of violence, the violence of institutions -- inaction and indifference and decay. We need not look very far into the pasts of most incarcerated Americans to find the moment when they were the victims of that kind of violence. They move, as many of their parents did, in interlocking cycles of violence and poverty.

It will take an intervention like the one Cuomo proposed to end these cycles. Left as they are, circumstances are not likely to change. We need to do something extraordinary and perhaps politically unpopular -- analogous to the integration of Southern universities during the civil rights movement -- to redress the growing income and opportunity inequality in this society. Higher education is one proven way the government can help change the lives of these men and women.

Here's what I wish I'd said to my colleague in the department office that morning: "Deserve" is a word we should abandon in this context, if not for words like mercy and compassion then at least for a concept like enlightened self-interest.

Research demonstrates clearly that those who earn college credits are far less likely to commit crimes again when they re-enter our communities. Of the men who've earned college degrees through the Bard College prison program in New York, only four percent return to prison, compared to a national rate of 40 percent, according to the Pew Charitable Trust. Oregon has the best college prison programs in the nation, and the lowest recidivism rates.

No other factor has such a positive effect. Prison officials know these statistics well, but like New York's governor, they can sway with the political winds. But then there are people like Dallas Pell, daughter of the late U.S. Senator Clairborne Pell (D-R.I.), who crusaded for federal aid for needy college students. His daughter today continues to fight on the Hill for reinstatement of Pell grants for prisoners as a strategy with a strong return on investment.

With our overcrowded prisons already overwhelming us financially, this is no time to turn a blind eye to real solutions. We need politicians and others to take a stand on this political hot potato, and when they do, I'll fall in right behind them.