Most of Them Will Be Out Someday

January 31, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

JESSUP — Jessup. -- Peanut is a man of few words, but his gaze can peel paint and he frowns eloquently about something Congress may do regarding Pell grants.

Peanut's given name is Eugene Taylor. He has spent about half his 42 years situated as he now is, behind bars and barbed wire, sentenced to life plus 25 years for murder and armed robbery. He dropped out of school in the 9th grade. The school, he indicates, had no strong objection. Sentimentalists who think there is no such thing as a bad boy never met Peanut in his misspent youth.

In his well-spent years in prison he has passed the eight-hour examination for a high school equivalency certification, and using Pell grants he has taken enough courses for a community-college degree. But a provision of the crime bill the Senate has passed would make prisoners ineligible for such grants, which subsidize post-secondary education for low- and moderate-income students.

The day Sheriff Clinton addressed Congress, which is chock full of would-be Wyatt Earps hot to be deputized for this latest fight-to-the-finish against crime, Peanut and some other prisoners who have benefited from Pell grants sat around a table expressing emphatic disagreement with the Senate.

Douglas Wiley (first-degree accessory, rape and burglary and armed robbery), Willie Marshall-el (drug possession), Olin Fisher-Bey (rape), Michael Postlewaite (rape), William Blackston (drug distribution) and Tim Sweeney (murder and armed robbery) are where they belong, serving long sentences. But most of them will be paroled someday, some of them soon, as they think of soon: before the year 2000.

Before intellectual fashion changed, prisons were called penitentiaries. They were places for doing penance and not much else. Today Peanut and his associates are in what Maryland calls a ''correctional institution.'' But ''correcting'' criminals is hardly a science and not frequently a success. Nationally the recidivism rate three years after release is about two-thirds.

In withdrawing Pell grants from prisoners the Senate may have been grandstanding and chest-thumping but it also was responding to scarcity. Demand for grants exceeds supply, so why should convicts be served when young people on the outside, whose parents pay taxes to pay for prisons, are not served? An answer may flow from this fact: 97 percent of all persons presently incarcerated will someday leave prison.

Do Pell grants for prisoners ''work''? Is educational attainment in prison a predictor of post-prison success? That is hard to say.

The prisoners joining Peanut around the table are a self-selected set of achievers, not a representative sample of the prison population. There are data showing that education in prison correlates with reduced recidivism. But those data may show only that the character traits that cause a prisoner to take advantage of prison opportunities would in any case dispose those persons to re-enter society successfully.

Furthermore, the culture of a prison is complex. In a spirited essay, prisoner Postlewaite suggests that short-termers are giving convicts a bad name. Many short-termers regard prison as a rite of passage, a mere hiatus in a career of crime. They have no incentive -- the incentive of long sentences -- to buckle down to self-improvement.

''Look at the behavior of the majority of inmates,'' writes Postlewaite. ''You would think that they were at the community recreation center. All their friends, relatives and homeboys are right there with them, and they are just as cheerful as they were in the streets.'' Having spent their short sentences watching television, playing basketball and making collect phone calls, they leave prison having ''no fear or bad feelings about coming back.''

The logic of Postlewaite's argument is that the most promising candidates for Pell grants are serving long sentences. But they are often in for the worst crimes. That is not politically congenial logic.

Prisoners who enroll in education programs get time cut from their sentences. Some acquire a disquieting fluency with the patois of pop sociology -- ''enhancing self-esteem'' and ''understanding societal norms'' -- that parole boards may find soothing. One feels at best ambivalent when someone convicted of a heinous crime says that education ''has made me feel good about myself.''

But Peanut does not talk like that. And Congress should consider the fact that Peanut may be at large in a few years, at which time Baltimore's streets, which he left long ago, may be a bit safer than they would be if he had not acquired some social skills with the help of his Pell grant.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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