Prepared to be free

Robert Leisure

June 04, 1993|By Robert Leisure

Following are excerpts from the valedictory speech to be delivered Sunday at commencement exercises at the Maryland State Penitentiary.

WELCOME to the 1993 combined commencement ceremonies for Coppin State College and Baltimore City Community College. As class valedictorian, I am honored to address you and share our collective joy with everyone present. This proud day for all of the graduates celebrates the accomplishments of men who were intelligent enough to take advantage of the only successful rehabilitative program offered to prisoners at the Maryland Penitentiary.

A college graduation inside the walls of a maximum security prison has a counterpart in nature. Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up and knows it has to be able to outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed and eaten. Every morning a lion wakes up and knows it must be able to outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve and die. It doesn't matter if you're a lion or a gazelle: When the sun comes up, you'd better be running.

Welcome to our jungle, where today for a few precious hours we can slow down to decide where we go from here.

The world outside is not waiting to welcome us. The economic climate is bad. The psychological climate is worse, and those are the conditions awaiting college graduates who aren't in prison. So what is the purpose of offering a college education to a prisoner?

National statistics indicate that 60 of every 100 convicts return to prison within five years of release. Only five of every 100 who obtain a degree while incarcerated return to prison. One need not be a math wizard to compute the enormous savings to taxpayers, especially since the annual cost to keep us in prison is about $30,000.

Budget problems of local, state and federal governments continue to worsen, and many people have questioned the wisdom of paying for a prisoner's college education. They suggest spending the money to hire more police, build more prisons and keep convicts inside longer.

The recidivism statistics I just quoted are facts. The get-tough solutions are fantasy. Nearly all prisoners one day will be released. Whom would society rather have released -- those 60 angry, uneducated convicts with low self-esteem looking for new victims, or the 95 who held prison jobs while attending night college classes and, with hard work and self-discipline, learned to control and modify the behavior that originally caused their incarceration? To do less meant losing their jobs, going on segregation and being denied the privilege of earning a college degree. A positive change was a byproduct of getting an education.

When Frederick Douglass came to Baltimore as a slave to work for the Auld family, Mrs. Auld began teaching him to read. Mr. Auld commented that teaching Douglass to read would forever make him unfit to be a slave. I believe a college education will forever make us unfit as prisoners. It will prepare us to be free. . .

Prior graduates will be extremely pleased to learn that beginning in June, a master's degree program will be offered. This bold step forward shows that our message was heard, so I won't beat a dead horse. But I will propose a wish list for future students.

More research materials are desperately needed. At the very least, a current set of encyclopedias is needed. Funds must be provided to keep the library open seven days a week. The current four days will not suffice, certainly after the master's program begins. College graduates who are unable to transfer to other prisons could be hired to run the research department as a separate entity funded and stocked by Coppin State, BCCC, inmate welfare funds and private donations or fund-raising projects of the Alumni Association. It can and should be done.

Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said in ruling in a case before him, "It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears." I wish my speech could free my brothers from their bondage. It can't, but the degree you are receiving today just may.

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