Miss America visits Maryland prison to promote inmate education program Pageant queen sees link between illiteracy, crime

March 18, 1997|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

Tara Dawn Holland, the reigning Miss America, visited the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup yesterday to promote an education program for inmates.

"Everybody is a person, and everybody has a soul and a spirit," the 24-year-old Kansan told a group of inmates. "Whether you're the president of the United States or a third-grader, every person deserves the right to get a good education."

The visit was part of Holland's national effort to promote literacy. She sees a particular link between illiteracy and crime.

"Parents pass on their inability to read and write to their children," Holland said. "Others are forced into crime, welfare and homelessness because they cannot read or write well enough to find and keep a job."

The state prison system's education program attracts 200 of this prison's 800 inmates with instruction for General Educational Development (GED) certificates and classes in office technology and family relationships. It also provides classes for students who cannot read, write or do arithmetic.

And for prisoners, it provides something even more valuable -- hope.

Sandra Linkous, a 34-year-old from Bowie, told Holland and her entourage -- including Susan Alexander, this year's Miss Maryland -- that she hated the idea of prison when she was sentenced for drug possession.

"But now, I think the best thing the judge could've done was put me in here," Linkous said, because education has made her realize she can do something worthwhile with her life.

Another prisoner, Karen Williams, 32, said she had never been motivated to do anything -- until now. "I bust my butt to get up early in the morning to go to school," said Williams, who violated probation twice. "This is my only hope."

Beverly Harshberger, 40, has been in prison 15 years -- she declined to say for what -- and could not read, write or add before she enrolled in the education program. Now, she is learning. "If it wasn't for the staff to give me the courage to go on " she trailed off. "I just thank them."

Holland told the students that she was touched by their stories and offered one of her own.

She said the choreographer of last year's Miss America pageant had prosthetic legs. When another choreographer asked him why he had chosen a profession that depended on his legs, he replied, "Because that's the one thing that everybody told me I couldn't do."

Holland added: "I can only imagine what people have said to you. I'm here to tell you that you can reach your dream. This is your ticket. Keep working at it."

Literacy has been Holland's interest since she learned at age 15 that someone in her family -- she declined to identify the relative -- was illiterate. At Florida State University, she was president of the Campus Alliance for Literacy and one of President Bush's 1,000 Points of Light.

As Miss America since September, she travels 20,000 miles a month to increase awareness about illiteracy.

At Jessup, many of the inmates seem to have gotten the literacy message. In addition to the 200 enrolled in the education program, at least 40 students are on waiting lists for specific academic and vocational courses.

The struggle at this prison is to serve all the inmates seeking education. The state Department of Education provided $10,000 this year, but the school must frequently seek outside contributions, said its principal, Edna H. Crosby.

John P. Linton, director of correctional education, added: "We're used to being an invisible program. But we feel that illiteracy is a serious obstacle for people trying to move away from the prison and back into the community."

Pub Date: 3/18/97

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