Nearly ten thousand ex-offenders are returning to Baltimore City from prison every year, with not all but too many bringing a cunning, ruthless prison culture home with them. To be sure City Hall, law enforcement advocates of community policing and various foundations and neighborhood-based nonprofits are valiantly tackling this problem.
An already violent element of urban culture is being infiltrated by a more malignant strain of viciousness associated with prison conduct onto Baltimore streets. Symbiotic prison and street gang subcultures are evolving as two edges of the same deadly blade holding Baltimore citizens captive to steadily increasing murder and mayhem.
As one who was born and reared on Baltimore City’s westside, frequenting neighborhoods like Park Heights, Sandtown-Winchester, Reservoir Hill and the former Lexington Terrace projects, I have not only witnessed the utility of education to reform young people who were on a solid trajectory towards the penitentiary, I am personally one of those young people.
If not for the compassionate intervention of mentors who believed in my ability to succeed and changed the trajectory of my prison-headed life, I could have joined the legions of Baltimore’s young Black men with felony records. However, as I heard a very wise person say, “You’ve got to own your life.”
The Baltimore Times has written on the topic of mass incarceration over the last six years as a powerful destructive element of the individual and of the community, reviewing thousands of documents, articles and analyses on the topic.
The major takeaway are the same two lessons I learned from my own personal rehabilitation. Avoiding and rebounding from incarceration can be achieved through holistic education, as one of my mentor teachers advised me.
Ms. Harris told me when I was 17 years old: “Personal happiness and positioning yourself for a successful life require striking and maintaining a balance in five crucial areas: intellectual, spiritual, emotional, social and physical.” The second aspect is becoming a critical thinker. Being proficient in reading, writing and math makes anything possible.
We, as a city must prioritize our at-risk-for-prison young people and also our reentering ex-offenders, most of who were illiterate when arrested and return home illiterate, but with prison records. “Eighty-five percent of all juveniles who come into the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate. So are 60 percent of all prison inmates,” according to invisiblechild.org.
However, there are models of success in the prisoner rehabilitation space. “‘When You Learn, You Don’t Return’: How Education in Prison Reduces Recidivism,’“ by Christopher Blackwell, an inmate halfway through a 45-year prison sentence who is obtaining a bachelor’s degree through the University Beyond Bars program.
“It was in the ninth grade when I decided to call it quits. I felt dumb in class, never seem[ing] to be able to follow what the teacher was saying,” Chris confesses. “As an adult, my math skills were comparable to that of a fifth grader. By the end of my final math class, I received an A.”
According to a 2005 Justice Policy Institute study, roughly 20% of Baltimore City African American men 20 to 30 years old were incarcerated, as were nearly 10% statewide. On track to surpass 300 murders again in 2023, Baltimore City experienced 2,667 murders between 2015 and 2022, an average of 333 murders per year; one murder every 26 hours and 18 minutes for the last eight years straight.
Overall, according to 2019 FBI statistics for Baltimore City, besides 348 murders, there were over 11,000 other violent crimes and rapes, also robberies, property crimes, burglaries, larcenies, vehicle thefts, carjackings and arsons equating to nearly 27,000 crimes, one crime every 20 minutes, 24/7, for the entire year.
How much is enough? A friend once told me, “Change happens when the pain of remaining the same becomes more painful than change.” Are we there yet, Baltimore? The Baltimore Times is calling upon our elected leaders to take a bolder approach.
Governor Wes Moore, please consider legislation requiring illiterate state inmates to become reading, writing and math proficient as a condition of release. Baltimore City state legislative delegation, please pass a bill requiring inmates to become literate as a requirement of reentry to communities.
This initiative is no cure all, but as a native Baltimore west-sider who ran with an unruly crowd in his youth; whose enlightenment through education steered him clear of incarceration; whose been happily married over thirty years; and raised four loving, compassionate children, we encourage this course of action as one of the strongest possible strategies Baltimore can collectively pursue as a community, immediately, to make a difference.
Baltimore Times readers, please weigh-in with feedback to our editors on this recommendation, and to your elected representatives. Thank you.