Inmates' fund-raiser offers a break from stereotypes

September 03, 2000|By Gregory Kane

STEVE FRANCIS, who mastered the basketball courts during his college days at the University of Maryland, College Park and is now doing the same for the National Basketball Association's Houston Rockets, was in prison Aug. 26.

No, it's not what you think. Francis flew to Maryland to visit the Patuxent Institution in Jessup. He was one of several speakers who talked to more than 300 inmates about Patuxent's Black College Survival program.

The inmates hold an annual walkathon to raise money for the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund, which helps pay for the education of students at 40 historically black colleges and universities.

"Basketball to me is about this long," Francis said, holding up his thumb and forefinger with just a tittle of space in between. "The rest of my life will be this long." Francis spread his long, lithe arms as far apart as he could.

Francis left college before graduating to cash in on the bucks the NBA now offers to underclassmen. He's making millions in the pros, but he's taking night classes in Houston to complete his requirements for a degree from College Park. When folks ask him why, Francis said, he gives them the thumb-forefinger-arms answer. In an age when pro athletes are stereotyped as overpaid and undereducated, Francis showed a refreshing wisdom. In an era when pro athletes are routinely criticized for "not giving back to the community," there was Francis, talking to society's most scorned and feared population, promising to kick in $1,500 of his own to add to the $10,400 the inmates raised for the Marshall fund.

They've been at it 13 years now, these Patuxent inmates, raising some $34,000. Calvert Porter, one of nine inmates on the committee that organizes the walk-a-thon, said some inmates sacrificed their state pay and commissary to contribute money. Anthony Perry was the inmate who donated the most - $300.

David Jenkins, the education liaison for Maryland's Division of Correction, praised the inmates for raising money for the education of others. Then he addressed the issue of their own education. He had just finished lamenting Congress' elimination of Pell grants - used before 1995 to help prisoners with their education - when he stopped briefly to chide a few fellows in the rear who were busy running their mouths.

"Guys, you might want to listen to this," Jenkins said. "It concerns your education." Jenkins then announced he was working with the U.S. Department of Education to restore some money to Patuxent so that inmates could take college classes once again.

The news was greeted with cheers from all - except perhaps the motormouths. Once the speeches were over and the walk had begun, inmate Mike Jamsa said that the rudeness and sheer stupidity of the few who were talking instead of listening embarrassed him.

Jamsa spends his days reading books on psychology and sociology. Walk with him for just a spell, and he'll enlighten you with his knowledge of Eastern religion and philosophy. He'll expound on the need for inmates to improve themselves by "eliminating the ego." He has committed much of what he has read to memory.

"When your actions please the mob, be ill at ease with yourself," is one of Jamsa's favorites.

Serving his 13th year of a 25-year sentence for murder - he contends it was self-defense - Jamsa is perhaps Patuxent's quintessential multicultural inmate. His cafM-i au lait complexion, light-colored eyes and straight hair are clues to his mixed racial heritage. The family that adopted him when he was younger is Jewish. Though critical at times of Patuxent's administration, Jamsa came out to support the walk-a-thon.

"The last time we walked we raised $5,000," Jamsa said. "This time we got $10,000. Maybe the next time we'll get $15,000." The inmates who marched, he said, were examples to prisoners everywhere of some positive things they can be doing.

"Anybody who sets an example, I've got to support," Jamsa said.

Another group of Patuxent inmates setting an example are the guys and gals in the Reasoned Straight program. It's based on the same principle as the Scared Straight program - inmates talking to young offenders and dissuading them from crime - but with a different philosophy: Reason works better than fear.

David Baker, serving a 25-year-to-life sentence for burglary, was in last year's walk-a-thon. On Aug. 26, there he was again. He's one of 18 inmates in the Reasoned Straight program, which, he says, has helped some 1,500 kids. On occasion, Baker acts as a foil to Jamsa's frequent criticism of Patuxent's administration and programs. Officials there, Baker noted, have the same budgetary constraints as everybody else, but overall the institution is well run.

"I suppose we could go to the Hyatt Regency and order a meal and find something wrong with it," Baker quipped as he waxed metaphorical, "but for the most part the meal tasted pretty good."

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