FROM an article in the New Yorker by James S. Kunen, on...

Salmagundi

July 21, 1995

FROM an article in the New Yorker by James S. Kunen, on the end of federal higher-education grants for prisoners:

Most of the inmate students whom I spoke to believe that politicians are well aware that cutting prisoner education programs will result in higher recidivism rates and contribute to a need for more prisons. They believe that right-wing politicians consider additional prison construction not a necessary evil but a necessary good.

Leslie Rodgers, a tall, broad-shouldered 37-year-old white man from Bay Ridge [N.Y.], was sentenced in 1985 to 10 to 20 years for kidnapping; he and a friend had taken a businessman hostage in an attempt to extort money for drugs. Rodgers could read and write only with difficulty when he entered prison, where he discovered that he suffered from dyslexia.

In prison, he has earned his high-school equivalency diploma, a bachelor's and two master's degrees, in sociology and ministry. . . .

Many of the convicts say that the inability to describe and understand their circumstances imprisoned them before they were ever locked up. And acquiring an education liberated them before they were released. None of the convicts felt that, upon reflection, ignorance had been bliss.

Kerry Wallis was sent to Sing Sing in 1987 at the age of 30, for six armed robberies; he would put a knife to the throats of cab drivers to get money for cocaine. Four years later, he left prison as Mercy College valedictorian. (He attributes his relatively short prison sentence to the fact that he's white.) Now Wallis runs drug-intervention programs for kids in trouble in Brooklyn and is an adjunct professor of psychology at Mercy College. He has a master's in counseling and development from Long Island University.

"College courses made me aware of the rottenness of my behavior," he says. "In developmental psychology, I learned I was overloading on pleasure and not focusing on reason. I was impulsive. I came to understand, 'Oh, that's why I was such an asshole.' I had to make a change. Would I have made it without Mercy College? Who knows? But you need awareness before you're motivated to change. You need an idea."

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