When he was a free man, William Biggs never had time to finish junior high school. He was, as he explains it, "too busy getting into trouble."
Now, Biggs, who has served seven years of a 15 years-to-life sentence for armed robbery, has been named to Who's Who Among Students in American Colleges and Universities. He earned a bachelor's degree in urban studies through the University of the District of Columbia's Prison College Program at Lorton and is about to begin work on a master's degree in guidance and counseling.
Because of his exemplary record, Lorton officials have initiated a move to release Biggs' early, perhaps sometime this year. No one had bothered to tell him that he was among outstanding students selected by the publication from among students at more than 1,200 colleges and universities in the United States.
His leadership at Lorton, high grades and participation in university activities led to his nomination.
At 27, Biggs has spent nearly all of his adult life behind bars.He began at 14 with "petty stuff," such as shoplifting, and had graduated to heroin use and armed robbery by the time he was 20. He grew up in Southwest Washington and attended Syphax Elementary School and Randall Junior High School, "until they put me out of there," to attend what used to be called a twilight school. In that program, which has been discontinued, disruptive students attended classes after everyone else left, Biggs said.
He said the path which led him to Lorton began with his family.
"I had a good family, but we were poor, and when you have to deal with the problems that go along with poverty, it carries over into all the other aspects of your life.
"As a kid, I stole a lot and got into the kind of behavior that went along with it. You know, I hung out with a lot of negative guys and we shared and reinforced that attitude in each other," Biggs said.
Finally, there was robbery, a police officer was wounded and Biggs was handed a stiff 15-to-life prison sentence. It wasn't until after his incarceration that Biggs began to think about completing his education.
"I think in the back of my mind I always knew that education could put some meaning into your life," Biggs said, "and in here, you have a lot of time to think about what you want to do with yourself -- with none of the distractions that you have when you're on the street."
Biggs got his GED certificate in 1974 and signed up for a few courses which UDC was offering without college credit at the time. Along with other students, he petitioned the university to offer credit for the courses, and the degree-granting program was started.
Biggs, who is chairman of the eight-man executive committee of the Lorton student government, took the degree in urban studies because at the time he entered the program, courses in urban studies and physical education were the only offerings. "You work with what they offer you and build from there," Biggs said.
He has chosen to pursue a master's degree in guidance and counseling for entirely different reasons. "I think that my experience could help me to counsel juvenile delinquents and that's what I want to do. It'll be worth it if I can just keep one kid from making some of the stupid mistakes I've made."
He admits that he is worried that his prison record may keep him from finding a job, but he is philosophical about it. "Of course, people are worried when they find out that you have a record, but in the line of work I'm thinking of, who knows? Maybe it will be an advantage because at least they'll know that I know what I'm talking about."
Biggs says that he has received encouragement from a lot of people, but credits his family and his religious beliefs for giving him the help that made his dream of a college degree a reality. He is the first in his family to finish college and even though he did it the hard way, he says that his family is "thrilled to death."
"A few years ago," he said, "my mother would have been satisfied if I just got a high school diploma. But this . . . well, she is beside herself. She wants my brothers and sisters to do the same thing -- but not the same way, of course."
Biggs is the oldest of six children. His mother now lives in New Jersey.
He thinks that some of the burdens which go along with a large family may have contributed indirectly to his behavior.
"I'll tell you something," he said, remembering a troubled childhood, "I don't know if anyone could have helped me. I just got off on the wrong foot. The thing is, whenever you get a bad name for yourself, there's no one who's gonna stick their neck out for you. That's as true in elementary school as it is in here. Somewhere along the line, I was a little boy who threw a spitball or something, and from then on, everyone thought I was bad. So I was."
Though he is wary of handing out advice, Biggs said that "more than just telling a child something, you've got to be there with him, offer him some guidance and gain his respect.
"If you don't really get involved in his life, all the spoken advice in the world won't help."