By Amanda Costikyan Jones
JESSUP – The hallways here, with their wide windows into each classroom, are just like those in any high school — only much, much quieter.
Inside the rooms, students in jeans and sweatshirts pore over their notes, heads bent in concentration as they work.
But outside, guard towers and coils of razor wire dominate the sky. A guard on a wooden platform oversees the caged, crowded recreation yard, where prisoners jostle over barbells and basketball.
For the 160 students here, the school is an oasis of calm inside the Maryland House of Correction Annex, a maximum-security prison where about two- thirds of the 1,200 inmates are serving life sentences.
Most of the student-inmates are working toward high school diplomas, and until recently, that would have been the end of a prisoner’s academic career. But since October, a private foundation grant has made it possible for about 40 carefully selected inmates to become college men.
Anthony Hawkins from Silver Spring is one of them. He got his high school diploma in 1993, seven years after he came to prison. After that, there were no more classes for him to take.
“At one point, you really had nothing to look forward to around here,” said Hawkins, 40. “You were in a warehouse, point blank.”
Now, he and his classmates are studying introductory government and business, after a three-credit introductory social sciences class last fall. Their professors are regular faculty from Coppin State College in Baltimore.
Richard Bright, who taught last semester’s class and teaches the government class now, said that in some ways, the inmates are easier to teach than regular college students.
“They’re more attentive, obviously, because they’re more disciplined. They’re not going to have a lot of outside distractions,” Bright said. “They have time to read …. They just devour the stuff; they want more.”
Tracy Hawes, 29, an inmate from New York, agreed.
“The college program helps us to avert from a lot of problems,” said Hawes, who came to the annex in 1993. “Personally, I wish there was more classes.”
Without the college program, “You’ve got to be autodidactic here. You’ve got to be self-taught,” Hawes said.
He said available jobs include “sanitation, laundry, kitchen, but basically there’s not a lot of things to do here besides lift weights and play basketball.”
The students in the program were selected by prison officials from a group of about 275 inmates who applied after Maryland received the $1.2 million grant. Among other things, the inmates selected had to have high school diplomas and be free from infractions for one year.
The grant, from the private Soros Foundations Network, has allowed the state to partially replace prison college programs that were dropped after Congress banned the use of federal college grants by inmates in 1994.
Although most of the students are serving life sentences, they see many reasons to continue their educations. Several said they are doing it for their children.
Hawes, who has a daughter, said he believes it is bad for children to think of their imprisoned fathers living “in a hostile ambience.” Now, he said, their children can have a sense of pride and hope.
“They can say, ‘My dad has graduated high school now; now he’s going to college,'” he said.
Hawkins said one of his four children is in college, studying to be a doctor. She had always urged him to continue his education, but until the college program began, his only option was correspondence courses, which he had considered but never started.
Now, he said, he feels he can set a better example for his children. “You would rather for your children to be proud of the man that you are than of the man that you were, that put you here,” he said.
He said the college program lets inmates tell their children, “‘Don’t do what I did; do what I’m doing’ … so they won’t make that sharp left turn or that sharp right turn to put them in a position like this.”
The inmates acknowledge that some people believe educating prisoners is an undeserved privilege or a waste of money. But, they said, programs like the one at the annex help society as a whole, because the vast majority of prisoners are eventually released.
“It suits society better to have a person out that has changed … through education,” said Floyd Michaux, 40, a New Yorker who is serving a life sentence for murder.
A prisoner who is released without having had access to education “knows no more than when you put him in jail, and he actually knows less, because society is always changing,” said Michaux, who works as an office assistant at the annex school during the day and attends the college courses at night.
Severino Alcantara, 26, a classmate who is serving “life plus 40” for murder, put it more dramatically.
“If you lock up a criminal … do you want him to come back outside as a vicious animal, or do you want him to come back with something that he can use?” he asked.