Graduating at Sing Sing and Princeton

At Princeton, college graduates step into six-figure salaries. At Sing Sing, they step back into their cells.

An old cell block at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York. C. M. Stieglitz / Wikimedia Commons

What could Sing Sing Correctional Facility and Princeton possibly have in common? Attending their graduation ceremonies reveals that they share more than one might expect: both are highly selective, both have education programs, and both are inordinately expensive. Dig a little deeper, and one sees that they also both rely on massive state assistance to sustain their operations.

No such thoughts were in my head as I traveled to Princeton to congratulate a relative on his four years there — and a week later departed to Sing Sing at the request of a student I had not seen since classes in Elmira’s maximum security prison in 2005–6. Celebration was the order of both days.

Princeton’s 1 Percent

Princeton’s ceremony was all that one might expect when great intelligence is married to great wealth. Regularly ranked the number one university in the nation, Princeton also ranks first in endowment per student with $3 million for every one of its eight thousand students. No wonder that its average student grant runs over $46,000, that it covers 100 percent of tuition, and 83 percent of its seniors graduate debt-free.

Princeton also promotes diversity: 6 percent of the student body is black and 7 percent Latino — figures higher than many private and state universities. In class terms, however, it is very much the training ground for the country’s 1 percent, ranking far down the list of universities with students from poor backgrounds.

Princeton’s 2016 graduation ceremony put its core standards on display: a large platform of distinguished professors and honorees towered over the degree recipients and their families seated on the lawn below. Looking upward we watched a procession of award winners and honorary degree recipients, led by former Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke. The student speaker challenged her audience with this year’s struggles — most pointedly the unsuccessful attempt by activists to dethrone beloved campus icon and notorious racist, President Woodrow Wilson — and called her peers to engage in good works.

Princeton’s president, for his part, lamented the absence in this year’s electoral culture of the civic virtues taught at Princeton, and, in a coy bow to popular culture, declared that the hit Broadway musical Hamilton might have been better if it celebrated Princeton graduate (and slaveowner) president Madison (the behavior of Princeton graduate Ted Cruz went unmentioned). College receptions afterward were replete with flutes stuffed with sparkling wines and strawberries, and lush catered banquets.

Sing Sing’s 1 Percent

Graduation at Sing Sing was an equally selective affair, held in the visitors’ room where we looked down upon the shimmering Hudson River — through reams of razor wire. Entrance was also by invitation only, and families and friends by the score filed in without a single camera, cellphone, purse, or wallet — all had been locked away before passing through metal detectors.

The thirteen students receiving a masters in professional studies from New York Theological Seminary represented less than 1 percent of the prison’s population and a bare fraction of the fifty-two thousand incarcerated in New York’s state prisons. Where black and Latino populations at Princeton were a remarkable 13 percent, at Sing Sing over three-quarters of the degree recipients were black or Latino, only slightly less than Sing Sing’s overall 86 percent.

Almost all had received BA or BS degrees while in prison through programs funded by small private colleges after state universities eliminated prison college courses over twenty years ago. One must do a lot of prison time, and have an extraordinary degree of discipline and perseverance, to get a degree now: most of the MA recipients were incarcerated as youth or young adults and have on average been locked up for almost twenty years.

The ceremony was nevertheless an exuberant affair focused, in stark contrast to Princeton, on the degree recipients themselves. Speakers from the Theological Seminary, professional ministers all, thundered mightily about work and redemption, illuminating the new paths chosen by those awaiting their degrees. The student speaker outshone everyone, instilling a deep appreciation for the discipline and virtue exemplified by his fellow graduates, and challenging all in the room to match such achievements and do equally good works.

Degrees were received to thunderous applause, after which attendees enjoyed a meal prepared by the prison kitchen staff while listening to a live prison band. The absence of champagne and fine foods could not still the tidal wave of irrepressible laughter, joy, and sheer pleasure that washed over graduates, teachers, and families alike.

After graduation the young Princeton graduates head out into the world, with the largest group destined for the world of finance; the average Princeton graduate’s salary is now $122,000. After their graduation, the Sing Sing students went back to their cells. Well into their fifties and sixties, the Sing Sing graduates face growing old in the prison. Criminal justice reforms are largely limited to easing parole and sentencing for the three “nons”: nonviolent, nonsexual, non-serious offenses. This means the Sing Sing graduates, like the vast majority of those remaining in state prisons, are unlikely to see parole any time soon — if ever.

The Costs of Princeton and Sing Sing

The cost of creating these very different paths to adulthood, free and unfree, is hard to grasp. In simple material terms it is staggering. How many youth could be sent to college for the cost of incarcerating one person? When I ask students in my Binghamton University criminal and social justice classes — where tuition, fees, and room and board costs around $22,000 per year — none guess correctly and many are stunned by the answer: over three Binghamton students could attend university for the $60,000-plus it costs the state to incarcerate one woman or man for a year. The annual costs of over a dozen Binghamton students could be fully paid by the state’s $250,000-plus bill for holding a single youth in a juvenile prison for year.

These misallocations of resources and justice are not by chance: they are by state design. For over a generation New York State politicians allocated a growing part of the state budget to imprison ever more youth, while cutting funds for public higher education and reducing taxes on the very rich. In the 1990s funding for incarceration surpassed state funding for higher education, while more black and Latino youth were being sent to prison for drug offenses than were passing through the gates of all state colleges and universities combined.

What is less known and certainly less defensible are the extraordinary subsidies to elite private colleges and universities. Federal and state financial support of Princeton and its peers has far outpaced support to public colleges and universities.

Writing in 2012 for Bloomberg View, economist Richard K. Vedder estimated that federal and state tax breaks and subsidies to Princeton averaged $54,000 per student or $420 million per year. The story is no different at other Ivy League schools as fellow economist and former labor secretary Robert Reich has argued. Public universities by comparison receive only 10 percent of Princeton’s subsidy, while community colleges near Princeton receive less than $2,000 per student in federal and state funds.

The storyline is not simply “the rich get rich and the poor get poorer” — it is that the rich get state grants and subsidies to send their children to elite schools while the poor get prison and, if they do get to college, full costs and debt.

Opening the Doors

Propelled along by the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements, fiscal and political conservatives have in the last few years joined liberal Democrats in calling for criminal justice reform. Sentencing reforms and decarceration have taken place, especially in New York. Yet the plight of the Sing Sing graduates underscores how even the most deserving will fail to be touched by current and proposed reforms.

Judging parole by the nature of a crime committed long ago, rather than an evaluation of an individual’s readiness to be released without causing harm to their family and community, ensures that prison numbers will fall little farther. And any vision of success for the formerly incarcerated will surely require greater investment in reentry and community services, including education.

Drastic shrinking of the prison complex could free up these resources so desperately needed by the formerly incarcerated and their communities. Going further, we could demand that private universities stop getting public funds, or that institutions like Princeton make their great wealth go further. Princeton’s motto is, after all, “In the Nation’s Service, and in the Service of All Nations.” Shouldn’t its vast wealth and facilities, so heavily state-subsidized over so many generations, be opened up to more than a small elite?

In the 1960s many expected prisons to be closed as failed social experiments: liberals and conservatives agreed prisons didn’t work. But in a painful twist, Democratic and Republican politicians alike seized that moment to launch today’s vastly expensive prison complex, while cutting funds to public education. Today we need to do better.

Just how far we need to move is illustrated by the fact that to even reach the level of incarceration in 1970 we would have to grant freedom to over 80 percent of the state’s and the nation’s incarcerated. And activists in many cities and states, often led by the formerly incarcerated, are pushing us to move even further — to abandon the school-to-prison pipeline and reassert education, housing, and criminal justice institutions as democratic, public goods. We have much work to do to make this a vision a reality.