JESSUP, MD. -- A group of inmates may seem unlikely benefactors and a yard surrounded by barbed wire an unusual spot for a charitable fund-raiser, but not to prisoners at Maryland's Patuxent Institution.
This month, about 265 Patuxent inmates are scheduled to leave the jail's red-brick confines and walk 10 miles around its three recreation yards as part of a walkathon, the final event in their two-month-old fund-raising drive in support of the Thurgood Marshall Black Education Fund. The fund, which is not connected to the prison, was established this year to provide economic assistance to students at the nation's 35 historically black public colleges and universities.
"I think this is a chance for us to help out other people," said James Featherstone, 25, the prisoner who dreamed up the event last May after he saw a televised appeal on behalf of the charity. "You know, us being prisoners and always taking from society, this is a chance for us to give something back."
In anticipation of the Oct. 10 walkathon, Featherstone, who has served nine years of a life sentence for murder, and seven other inmates convicted of crimes that include rape and armed robbery formed a committee to negotiate with the Patuxent administration and encourage other prisoners to participate.
Each inmate planning to make the walk was asked to contribute $10, about half of the monthly salary they receive for working at the prison performing jobs such as working in the laundry and kitchen.
So far, the prison's Project Black College Survival has raised more than $2,000, according to Leon Tillery, editor of the prison newspaper who is serving a 25-year sentence for armed robbery. The inmates are hoping to contribute more than $3,000 to the scholarship fund, he said.
Charles Brightful, Patuxent's recreation director, said he initially was skeptical when the group sought his support for their endeavor. "I was saying, 'What the hell is this? Why all of a sudden do you want to do this kind of thing? Is this going to put him in a better situation so the administration would be impressed and he might get out of here sooner?"
Since then, however, Brightful said, he has been convinced that the men's motives are sincere by the zeal with which they have recruited sponsors and promoted the event. He also noted that all of the eight prisoners will probably be paroled to a halfway house within two years, anyway. Their involvement would have little effect on their status, he said.
The prisoners have been allowed to invite their families, state and Howard County officials, radio and television personalities, and National Basketball Association players -- sponsors of the Marshall fund -- to make donations and watch the proceedings. For security reasons, guests will not be permitted to circle the prison yards with the inmates, Featherstone said, but there will be a giant picnic and a performance by Patuxent's inmate band.
Although it is unusual for a prison to have a walkathon, such charity events have occurred in some prisons around the country. For example, Maryland prisons have donated money for toys at Christmas and Virginia prisons have chapters of the Jaycees, make toys for poor children and have had benefit variety shows, prison officials said.
D.C. corrections officials said District prisoners have traditionally taken part in projects, including the Special Olympics and Project Harvest, in which food is collected for the needy, and that a walkathon is being planned.
Many of the eight prisoners on the Patuxent walkathon committee said they supported the event because they were allowed to take classes in prison from Morgan State University in Baltimore, one of the colleges that could receive their donations.
"I grew up in Washington, D.C., and pretty much all my life I have been into drugs. I dropped out of school in seventh grade and started hanging out in the streets," said James Crowder, 35, who has served six years of a 40-year sentence for armed robbery and earned both his high school and college degrees at Patuxent.
"Morgan State gave me an opportunity to enhance my education and to make my life better," Crowder said.
Doing the walkathon "is making me feel real good about myself."
Five of the eight men have received bachelor's degrees from Morgan State while they've been at Patuxent, majoring in one of the two fields -- sociology and business administration -- that the college offers as part of its services at the prison. Their educational expenses largely have been met with federal grants, but some inmates said they still have trouble paying for books and other supplies.
"A lot of guys when they come here are antagonistic towards school. Either they didn't fit in or they had learning disabilities or emotional problems that interfered with their studies," said George Kalomeris, 31, who has completed the requirements for two bachelor's degrees while serving a life sentence for murder. "But once they get here, instead of it being a stigma to do well in school, it's something to be looked up to."
"When you look back at your neighborhood, you know most of us come from poor families, and you see what the kids out there are up against in terms of feeling bad about themselves and their parents not being able to spend much time with them," said Thomas Fair, 31, who is serving a 30-year sentence for second-degree murder. "You know that without educational opportunities, they are going to end up in a place like this. And basically what we are trying to do is show them that there's another way."