BUFFALO – If not for the Supreme Court, Chuck Culhane would be dead.
In 1972, the highest court in the land deemed the death penalty unconstitutional. That ruling wouldn't last, but it saved Culhane, who'd spent close to three years in the early seventies on death row. By the time he finally walked out of prison a free man in 1992, he was pushing 50. He'd spent a total of 26 years in prison, originally sentenced to a decade for an armed robbery incident before a conviction for his role as an accomplice in a fatal prison escape netted him an even longer stay.
But Culhane had something to show for doing his time.
He had a college education.
"I wanted to see change in my life," Culhane said. "The punk that had been holding up a gas station wasn't going to cut it."
Culhane, who always maintained that he had no involvement in the high-profile case which left a deputy and another inmate killed in gunfire during that escape in 1968, earned his associate's degree in prison and worked toward his bachelor's, which he received after his release. He admits his transition to civilian society hasn't been perfect – including parole violations due to a battle with substance abuse – but he eventually became a teacher and a paralegal. Now, he is the co-chair of the Erie County Prisoners' Rights Coalition, and he unquestionably supports Gov. Andrew Cuomo's announcement Sunday of an initiative to add college courses to 10 prisons in the state.
"My first reaction," Culhane said, "was that it's the best news I've heard in a long time."
Not everybody feels the same way. Case in point: within four hours of posting Cuomo's initiative on the 2 On Your Side Facebook page, close to one thousand comments vigorously attacked the Governor. Republican Senator Mark Grisanti released a statement in fierce opposition to the plan, saying he "supports rehabilitation and reduced recidivism, but not on the taxpayer's dime when so many individuals and families in New York are struggling to meet the ever-rising costs of higher education."
Cuomo announced his plan in front of a crowd at the Wilborn Temple First Church of God in Albany during the Black, Puerto Rican Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus event, citing an alarming rate of inmates who return to prison within three years of their release in New York. That number stands at about 40 percent, and it costs roughly $60,000 to fund each inmate per year. Adding college courses at $5,000 per year for each inmate would reduce the likelihood of a prisoner returning to prison, Cuomo said. In a media release later, his office said "studies have shown that investing in college education for prisoners dramatically decreased recidivism rates while saving tax dollars on incarceration costs."
The program is modeled after an initiative at Bard College, where Cuomo said only four percent of the 250 college graduates in a partnering prison returned to incarceration upon earning their degrees.
"It worked," Cuomo said. "They told us it couldn't be done, but and we did it."
Culhane said he began writing while on death row, which he credits as the start of his education. He works with a variety of prison rights groups now and often serves as a guest speaker.
"You find these kids on the corner dealing drugs. If I offer them a job, $25,000 a year, they'd walk away from that in a minute," Culhane said. "[College] would give them something of a self-esteem and an ability to navigate out here, if nothing else. Job creation is essential."
When Culhane took classes in prison, the concept wasn't entirely foreign. President Bill Clinton signed a law in the mid-90s that cut college scholarships and funding in prisons, which essentially ended the idea across the country, but Culhane calls that an "awful mistake."
"It was something that worked. People came out after getting a two-year degree or a four-year degree and the higher the degree, the less the chance of them ever going back," Culhane said.