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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The U.S. used to have a robust college education system for prison inmates, it was seen as a way to rehabilitate men and women behind bars, helping them go straight when they got out. Tax-payer funded college classes for inmates were defunded, mostly, in the 1990s, but now in New York there's a fierce new debate underway over higher education in state prisons.

North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann has more.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: You know a politician is in risky territory when one of his ideas sparks a question about Mark David Chapman - the guy who murdered John Lennon.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What do you say to a Yoko Ono if Mark David Chapman says I want a college education?

MANN: That's a reporter talking to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo earlier this month in Buffalo.

At issue is Cuomo's plan to reinstate taxpayer-funded college classes in New York's prisons. Cuomo, a Democrat, says it's a common-sense plan that will reduce the number of inmates who commit new crimes.

GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO: Forget nice. Let's talk about self-interest. You pay $60,000 for a prison cell for a year. You put a guy away for 10 years, that's 600 grand. Right now, chances are almost half that once he's released he's going to come right back.

MANN: Cuomo says helping inmates get a college education would cost around $5,000 a year per person - chump change, he argues, if it keeps that inmate from bouncing back into prison.

But even some members of his own party hate this idea. Addie Russell is a state Assemblywoman, a Democrat, whose upstate district includes three state prisons. She says taxpayers just won't stand for inmates getting a free college education while middle-class families struggle to pay for their kids' tuition, housing and books.

ASSEMBLYWOMAN ADDIE RUSSELL: That is the vast majority of feedback that I'm also getting from my constituents, where's the relief for the rest of the law-abiding population?

MANN: If this argument sounds familiar, the fight here in New York is a carbon copy of the national debate over prison education programs 20 years ago.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton pushed through a tough crime bill that dramatically expanded America's prison system, while also eliminating federal student aid programs for inmates.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: There must be no doubt about whose side we're on, Clinton argued. People who commit crimes should be caught, convicted, and punished.

MANN: It was a victory for the tough-on-crime movement, but many prison experts now say dismantling those inmate education programs was misguided.

GERALD GAES: I was very disappointed that the policy had been changed.

MANN: Gerald Gaes was an expert on college programs for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the 1990s and has since written extensively on the impact of higher education behind bars.

Gaes says research shows that college classes actually save taxpayers money over time, by reducing the number of inmates who break the law and wind up back in those expensive prison cells.

GAES: It is cost effective - designing prisons that way will have a long-term benefit.

MANN: Bipartisan critics in New York's legislature have promised to kill Cuomo's proposal, with one lawmaker describing it as Club Med for inmates.

But the plan plays very differently with back and Hispanic lawmakers, who have pushed for prison reforms. Cuomo drew a standing ovation speaking, last month, to a largely black church congregation in Albany.

CUOMO: Let's use common sense, the economic cost, the human cost, let's invest and rehabilitate people.

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MANN: In the past, Governor Cuomo has had success pushing controversial ideas that seemed dead on arrival, including same-sex marriage in 2011 and a strict gun control law last year.

With New York's budget due next month, Cuomo says he hopes to fund college classes in 10 prisons as a trial program.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in upstate New York.

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