ANNAPOLIS – Charles Dutton came of age in an East Baltimore housing project, landed in reform school at age 12, and spent nearly a decade in prison on manslaughter and weapon-possession charges.
He changed the course of his life in the early 1970s, earning a high school diploma and a junior college degree while still behind bars in Hagerstown.
Now he’s a graduate of Yale Drama School and a highly paid actor who has starred on Broadway and appeared in movies. For three years, he played the lead in the television show “Roc,” a Fox sitcom about a Baltimore garbage collector.
Prison school, Dutton said, was one of the most important factors in his life. “If it wasn’t for that,” he said, “there’s no telling what would have happened to me.”
Inmates hoping to follow Dutton’s example will find it tougher under Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s proposed budget for fiscal year 1997, which cuts deeply into prisoner-education programs.
The governor’s $14.7 billion spending plan, presented to lawmakers Jan. 17, leaves no room for an existing program that helps inmates earn the equivalent of a high school degree. Another program that teaches work skills such as masonry, typing and auto repair would be gutted.
Glendening spokesman Ray Feldmann said the governor would rather boost spending for public schools in a tight budget year than continue programs that benefit lawbreakers.
“There’s only so many resources to go around,” Feldmann said.
Maryland prison schools last year awarded 985 high school diplomas and 779 work skills certificates, a Department of Education official said. More than 21,000 inmates are in the state system.
The cuts would save $3.2 million a year by eliminating 56 teaching jobs at 10 prisons from Hagerstown to Somerset County and one administrative position in Baltimore.
But by reducing Maryland’s prisoner-education effort to basic skills and special education programs, the minimum required by law, Glendening is doing more than balancing the budget, a leading prisoner educator said.
Ted S. Price, president of the Lanham-based International Correctional Education Association, said the governor is also catering to a public increasingly angry about crime and in no mood to pamper convicts.
“It’s politically popular right now to get tough on crime and cut back on things that look like they are benefiting prisoners,” said Price, the former head of Virginia’s prison- school system.
Price said other states have cut prisoner perks such as television sets and weight-lifting equipment. But so far, he said, Maryland is alone in proposing to eliminate high school and vocational education programs for inmates.
Key lawmakers and prison-school experts said the cuts fail as a cost-saving measure for two reasons:
– Inmates who lack a high school education or job skills are more likely to return to prison, studies show. The targeted programs actually save the state some $3 million a year by reducing the number of prisoners who return, Price argued in a Jan. 22 letter to the governor.
– Inmates who enroll in the programs are eligible for reduced sentences. Those prisoners will stay behind bars longer under the cuts, thus increasing the state’s bill for housing them.
Both Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Prince George’s, and House Speaker, Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, expressed displeasure with the cuts.
And Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore, said members of the Budget and Taxation Committee that she chairs are committed to preserving prisoner education as it is.
Under the cuts, Hoffman said, inmates would have more idle time, which could lead to violence.
“We’re going to do whatever we can,” Hoffman said, adding that her committee helped defeat similar but smaller cuts proposed five years ago by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
In Maryland, lawmakers have no power to restore budget cuts made by a governor. But they can make additional cuts and ask the governor to use the savings to restore programs.
Del. Sue C. Hecht, D-Frederick, said the governor told her on Wednesday that he was “more than willing” to work with lawmakers to restore the programs — as long as equivalent cuts can be found elsewhere in the budget.
“I don’t think this was an easy decision for him,” said Hecht, whose district includes the Hagerstown area, home to three prisons and nearly half the targeted jobs. “I think if we can identify a better way, he’ll jump on it.”
That would be a worthy move, in Dutton’s view. The one-time Tony Award nominee said he understands why the governor would direct money away from prisons and toward public schools in lean times. But, Dutton added, “These things work. As idealistic as they sound, they actually work. I don’t want to be a living testimony to it, but I am.” -30-