His gospel preaches teaching, not jailing Corrections chief: At 70, Bishop L. Robinson continues to argue for keeping people in school, not prison.

March 11, 1997|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Outside the House Office Building in Annapolis, a dapper figure in a trench coat with close-cropped gray hair drags on cigarette after cigarette.

He unfolds a piece of yellow legal paper that contains his standard sermon, a litany of hopeless numbers with the words "Quality of Life" underlined at the top.

The man some call "the archbishop" has come to preach.

And sure enough, by the end of the budget hearing at which state public safety chief Bishop Lee Robinson is the star witness, the delegates are rocking ever so slightly in their seats to his words.

When he says "Isn't that right?" they even murmur "Yes, that's right," in the manner of churchgoers echoing a pastor's call.

Corrections chiefs come and go -- victims of scandal, failed policies and the crime waves they can never control. But Robinson is a survivor.

He made it through three years as Baltimore police commissioner, beat brain surgery, still smokes when frustrated and this week, at 70, marks his 10th anniversary as the state's top prison official.

In a political minefield of a job, it has been an extraordinary run.

And despite persistent rumors that he will retire soon, the secretary of public safety and correctional services refuses to say when his job will be done.

Meanwhile, he is using his bully pulpit to argue for better education to slay the money-grubbing dragon that the system of punishment has become.

Robinson has been occupied this legislative session not only with trying to convince lawmakers that they must curb crime instead of just building prisons, but with behind-the-scenes lobbying on the landmark settlement proposal to pump money into the city's schools.

"I'm part of the problem," Robinson admits. "I participated in this narrowly focused response to crime. We are, I guess, in a Catch-22 situation.

"We're spending so much money on the back end that there's not enough money on the front end.

"I came here with 12,000 people in prison. Now I have 22,000. This is absolutely appalling. It's abhorrent to see the waste of human, young lives."

He looks down at his yellow paper describing the numbers of unemployed -- at all the zeros, in particular, as if they crystallized the emptiness of so many lives adrift.

Fifteen thousand coming out of his prisons every year. Their average level of education, he says, is 6 1/2 years.

"What the hell are they equipped to do in the community? Nothing," he said.

"I would rather intervene so I could spend $5,800 a year on a child than $18,000 to keep him in prison as an adult."

A great salesman

If anyone can sell the linkage between education and crime prevention, it's Robinson, admirers say.

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he planned to vote for the schools settlement despite the opposition of others from his county who say the city is getting too much money.

"I'm going to do it largely because of Bishop's arguments," he said.

"Every governor wants a Bishop," said Timothy F. Maloney, a former Prince George's County delegate who chaired a committee that oversaw Robinson's budget. "He's a natural performer.

"He revels in absorbing facts, facts and more facts, and talking about them in a very persuasive way. He's a great salesman."

At one point Robinson wanted to leave the public stage.

Four years ago, he announced he was going to direct security for the Johns Hopkins Hospital -- a job that would have brought with it more money and perhaps less pressure.

A month later, he underwent surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain -- and had a change of heart.

Bishop Robinson was born Jan. 16, 1927, into a Baltimore vastly different from the one whose citizens he imprisons at alarming rates today.

Back then, you could sit and visit in the courtyard of the McCulloh Homes where he grew up in West Baltimore.

"Nobody was running through the neighborhood with a Tec-9," he said.

His father, John, couldn't read or write, but he had an uncanny head for numbers, and he stood over young Bishop and made him finish his homework.

John Robinson worked long past the age most people put their feet up for good; first at a laundry, then cleaning telephone booths, which required him to drive around the city.

"He was about 85 before he quit and stopped driving," said his son. "I pulled him out of the car because he was hitting fixed objects."

From rookie to commissioner

Bishop Robinson locked up his first prisoner in 1951, when as a rookie policeman he caught a young man smoking a marijuana cigarette.

Thirty-three years later, after working his way through the city police department, he would sit behind his desk as police commissioner and marvel at the 12,000 drug arrests his officers were making each year -- a number for which he now feels nostalgic.

Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who as mayor appointed Robinson to head the Police Department, brought him to Annapolis in 1987.

"He was very strong in what he thought was right," Schaefer said last week. "I agreed with him 90 percent of the time, and he knew that."

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