Broadway actor Charles S. "Roc" Dutton, who grew up in a housing project in the shadows of the Maryland Penitentiary and spent 12 years of his life in reform school and prison, told 29 pen inmates graduating from Coppin State College yesterday that the value of their education would be the "discovery of one's own humanity."
Mr. Dutton, 40, who served prison terms for manslaughter, possessing deadly weapons and assaulting a prison guard, told the capped and gowned graduates assembled in the maximum-security penitentiary's auditorium that the drug culture many once were part of was having a "genocidal" impact on black neighborhoods.
Mr. Dutton said he aimed his commencement address at the majority of inmates who are imprisoned for drug-related crimes. "I wanted them to take responsibility for the destruction they and others are causing in their own community," he said after his commencement speech.
He recalled his own "defiant attitude" as a youth growing up in Baltimore's Latrobe public housing project. Mr. Dutton said he got caught up in a cycle of violence as a child and young man but began to "discover my own humanity" when "I finally had something to believe in."
His personal awakening began when, as a prison inmate, he attended Hagerstown Junior College. Later, he graduated from Towson State University and Yale University's School of Drama.
Mr. Dutton, who now lives in Los Angeles, had leading roles in a series of Broadway plays written by August Wilson, such as "Joe Turner's Comeand Gone" and "The Piano Lesson." He also has performed in movies and will play the role of a sanitation worker in a situation television comedy series called "Roc," scheduled for debut on the Fox network in August.
His presence at the prison commencement yesterday was a symbol of liberation for the graduating inmates -- even though some may never get on the streets again because of the duration of their sentences.
The valedictorian, John Woodland, a management science major, said that "when we see him in a movie or hear about him in a play, we know that we, too, can do great things." Woodland was sentenced in 1984 to 30 years for murder and a handgun violation.
For Lawanda Ferrell, a resident of Suitland, the graduation of her 31-year-old husband, William T. Ferrell, was "very special because he is the first one in our family to go all the way through school and graduate. I have tried to encourage him so his son can follow in his footsteps."
Their son, William L. Ferrell, 10, was all smiles as his father -- serving 30 years for second-degree murder -- received a bachelor's degree in management science and applied psychology.
"It has been a strange environment to study in because there is constant noise, screams and cries in the middle of night, and chaos and conflict," Ferrell said. "I sense all the hopelessness that the brothers feel."
Martin Francis Scott, a magna cum laude graduate with a bachelor's degree in social science, was imprisoned in 1980 on a murder conviction and spent the first seven years on death row before his sentence was changed to double life terms plus 95 years. "When I was on death row, I figured it would not do any good to get a degree to go to the gas chamber," said the trimly built graduate, sporting a wisp of a goatee.
The college education helped re-shape his thinking, said Scott, who noted that he realistically can look forward to parole in 2042 -- when he is in his 80s.
"My mind has never been in prison," he said.
Richard Bright, a Coppin State political science professor who teaches at the penitentiary where some 125 inmates have received college degrees since 1974, said he has seen "a lot of these guys come into the college program as hard-shelled people with everything against them, and a chance to get an education opens a whole new world to them.
"This program proves to me there is a terrible waste of good minds because of poverty or disadvantaged lives and one big mistake puts them behind the eight ball."
In saluting the graduates, Mr. Dutton said they can avoid the pitfalls of the typical graduating classes by "not falling into the path of apathy. You see, there is a tremendous amount of apathy in this country, especially among young people. . . . This graduating class is only a step away from discovering its humanity."