Graduation at the Pen

June 04, 1993

The word "valedictory" comes from the Latin valedictus: said or done at parting. But when Robert Leisure delivers a valedictory to 25 college graduates Sunday afternoon, none will be parting -- at least immediately. All 26 will be returning to their cells at the Maryland State Penitentiary.

These men, three graduating from Baltimore City Community College, 23 from Coppin State College, are the elite of the Maryland prison system, those who have worked their way through higher education. (Of 2,400 prisoners who completed some kind of education program last year, only 100 were colleges students.)

The typical inmate has not much more than an elementary education. Many don't know the alphabet. Three-fourths are high school dropouts, and three-fourths have no work history -- that is, they have never held a job for any length of time.

Educators in the prison system have been struggling valiantly to make a dent in some of these dreary statistics. More than 700 inmates completed literacy programs last year, while 517 earned high school equivalency diplomas. Hundreds more were in drug-education classes, job readiness classes, vocational training and other programs under the rubric of education.

Still, only 5,000 of the state's 20,000 inmates are in some kind of program, and this has been reduced by 1,000 because of painful state budget cuts.

A few years ago the lock-'em-up-forever folks produced research attempting to show there is no relationship between prison education programs and recidivism. Common sense -- and an abundance of solid research -- refute that argument. Virtually every young hoodlum involved in the series of nightmare crimes that have plagued this city for several years is a school dropout, and most are illiterate.

Valedictorian Leisure, in his speech excerpted on the page opposite today, compares the recidivism rates of criminals with degrees and those without them. His logic that the few thousand dollars needed to educate an inmate are peanuts beside the $30,000-per-year cost of housing a prisoner is irrefutable.

The recently opened Occupational Skills Training Center next to the downtown penitentiary is an encouraging step forward for the Division of Correction (as is the razing of the notorious South Wing). Full restoration of the system's education budget cuts would be even better news.

Meanwhile, congratulations to valedictorian Leisure and his 25 fellow inmates who will have achieved a measure of intellectual -- if not physical -- freedom when they graduate Sunday.

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