Prisoners take a walk, raise scholarship funds

September 23, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

THE CROWD OF nearly 300 cheered and clapped raucously as two men hoisted the giant check into the air. They presented it to Dr. Joyce Payne. The Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund was some $5,000 richer.

The crowd had good reason to cheer. They had raised the money, saving it from their jobs that pay them only 90 cents to $1.30 an hour. These fund-raisers, you see, were all inmates at Patuxent Institution in Jessup.

Payne started the scholarship fund 11 years ago. Recipients get four-year merit scholarships to one of about 40 historically black colleges or universities. Payne thanked the inmates, told stories of successful recipients (one of whom was a white fellow who said his experience at a black college let him know how it felt to be a minority) and vowed she would work to restore Pell grants for prison inmates.

After listening to several speakers -- including WJZ's Kai Jackson, who was on hand to offer some words of inspiration -- the inmates took to the athletic field for what amounted to a reverse walk-a-thon: They get the money first, then they walk. They filed outside -- black and white, men and women -- to walk five laps around the field.

David Baker, a 43-year-old inmate who has served eight years of a 25-year no-parole sentence for burglary, talked about his life as he walked. Heroin addiction was his undoing. Nabbed for trying to take a television set, Baker was sentenced under Maryland's version of the "three-strikes-and-out" law for being a "career criminal." The television theft was his third burglary.

"My career was as a machinist at Martin Marietta," Baker lamented, adding that he thought the "three-strikes-and-out" law pertained to violent criminals. Indeed, you have to wonder how the citizens of Maryland are served by keeping him under lock and key. He would like to spend the rest of his life warning others about the pitfalls of drugs.

"I plan on taking the message of drug addiction to society," Baker said. "It's a life-threatening disease, and there's a lot of suffering in the process." With his muscular arms -- the right is completely tattooed, the left is tattooed with a pair of boxing gloves and the name "Dave" -- you get the feeling folks will listen to him.

Participating in the walk-a-thon and scholarship fund-raiser is one way Baker repays his debt to society.

"Drug addicts are self-centered, selfish individuals," Baker said. "Inmates as a whole take from society. Nobody here lays his head on his pillow at night without feeling regret for what he's done."

Jerome Wellons, 34, agreed.

"It's a way to help students and give back," Wellons said. "This is nothing. We could be doing more."

Stephen Edwards, a 21-year-old from Montgomery County, has devoted his short stay at Patuxent to doing more. Convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole, Edwards professes his innocence, but pleads guilty to hanging out with the wrong friends, who were instrumental, he said, in sending him to prison.

But Edwards plans to use his time in prison wisely. He joined the inmate advisory council when he arrived at Patuxent. He now serves as its president. His latest mission is to get grants so that Patuxent's inmates will have access to the latest computers.

"The majority of these guys will be out within five years," Edwards cautioned. "None of us is computer literate." With no computer skills, Edwards figures parolees will have an extra disadvantage -- they'll already be ex-cons -- when they apply for jobs.

Edwards would like to use the computers to produce a magazine geared to "at-risk" youth. It would be like the hip-hop magazine The Source, Edwards envisions, only more substantive.

Computer art is Edwards' passion. He went to the Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Washington. On the fence of a volleyball court near the athletic field hung one of his paintings, done on two sheets sewn together. The portrait is of an idyllic countryside picnic scene.

John Kidwell, 44, came to Patuxent from the precarious and deadly streets that surround the notorious corner at Fayette and Gilmor streets. He, like Baker, Wellons and Edwards, participated in the walk-a-thon to "give something back."

Kidwell said he tries to impress on Patuxent's younger inmates the value of respect. Kidwell has the habit of calling everyone "sir" or "ma'am." When a younger inmate asked why, Kidwell told him it was a matter of respect. The concept seemed lost on the youth, but Kidwell's not deterred.

"If I can change one person," Kidwell said, "I'll be successful."

Pub Date: 9/23/98

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