For nine years, prison inmate James Jenkins-Bey shut out the din of radios, card and pool games and his fellow inmates while he studied for a college degree.
His determination paid off Friday when he became the first inmate at Lorton Central Facility, the D.C. prison, to earn a bachelor's degree - in urban studies and journalism - from the University of the District of Columbia.
He was graduated valedictorian of a class of 11 inmates. The other 10 men received associate of arts degrees in urban studies from UDC's College of Liberal and Fine Arts.
Wearing a black graduation robe, still creased from packing, and a black-tassled red fez, the 31-year-old Muslim received his degree in the presence of his weeping mother.
After the ceremony, Jenkins-Bey discussed the personal problems which conspire against the student inmate.
"You're worrying about what's happening to your family out in the community and are helpless to do anything about it," he said softly, choosing his words carefully.
"You worry whether your wife or girlfriend will be waiting for you when you get out. My mother was going through financial difficulties, in my case, and I had a 6-month-old daughter. It's on your mind 24 hours a day. You're lucky if you can sleep," he said.
"You're lucky if you can do anything but worry."
Jenkins-Bey has not seen his wife in five years, and was hurt that his daughter wasn't brought to his graduation.
During the ceremony, he drew applause from family and friends of the graduates, when he seized the opportunity to tell the audience, which included university and prison officials and Washington Mayor Marion Barry, that programs for rehailitating prisoners were inadequate.
"The manual training programs are good," he said, "but 10 or 15 years later when a brother gets back on the street, he's forgotten what he learned. Inmates should be allowed to go out and use their skills. There are men here who can build houses, do brick-laying, photography, office machinery repairs. But what good does it do them to learn 10 years before they get out?"
"Indirectly the men are discouraged from completing the high school or college program," he continued after the ceremony. "The books sometimes reach us after half a semester's over. There's no library, and it can take forever and a day to get your transcript. A lot of people give up and drop out of the program."
Jenkins-Bey came a long way to finish it. After two earlier convictions and an attempted escape, he was sentenced in 1971 to 10 to 30 years in Lorton's medium security unit for armed robbery.
He first completed work on his high school equivalency diploma, then enrolled in the UDC program. Jenkins-Bey took all his classes at the prison, although prisoners at Lorton's minimum security facility are bused to classes at UDC.
Since the program was begun in 1969 by the then-Federal City College, which merged into UDC, 66 inmates have earned degrees. None has returned to prison and all hold jobs today, UDC officials said.
Jenkins-Bey is eligible for parole next fall but wary about being too optimistic.
"I'm numb about getting out," he explains. "For the last four years people have said they'll try to get me home. My family and I built up to that and each time it doesn't happen."
Once out, however, he hopes to use his experience as editor of "Time and Tide," the prison newspaper he edits, to land a job in journalism and gradually work up to becoming a publisher. CAPTION: Picture, James Jenkins-Bey, wearing fez, receives congratulations from Mayor Marion Berry. By John Dwyier for The Washington Post