On June 1, James E. Biddinger was sentenced to 10 years in jail for manslaughter before a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge.
A week later, on his 28th birthday, Biddinger stood before a group of county officials and five other inmates and their families in the gymnasium of the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Boyds to receive his high school GED, having scored 3,180 out of 4,000 on the test.
“Being incarcerated here at Clarksburg has forced me to re-evaluate my priorities,” Biddinger told the small group as he accepted the Terry Reister Award for Academic Excellence for his accomplishment. “My new priorities are my family, my freedom and my education.”
Biddinger was charged with stabbing and killing 22-year-old Kevin A. Mbayo on May 2, 2011 after a fight in the Germantown home that Biddinger rented with Mbayo’s father. Biddinger pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder at trial and was convicted of manslaughter in March.
After the speeches, Montgomery County Correctional Facility Chief Education Administrator Barbara James spoke of the importance of the joint correction and Montgomery County Public Schools program — called the Model Learning Center — that makes such opportunities possible for dozens of county inmates each year.
“The majority of these people here will be coming out to live in this community upon their release; they may even be your neighbors or classmates,” James said. “Why wouldn’t you want to make sure they are educated and took advantage of a positive program during their time here?”
Arthur M. Wallenstein, director of the county Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, agreed, pointing to the multiple benefits of providing inmates a chance at attaining a higher education.
Not only do the classes keep the inmates who are enrolled in them away from negative influences, such as gang membership, while they are serving time, it also provides inmates a solid chance at leveling the playing field for jobs or college enrollment upon their release, both of which can be uphill battles for residents with criminal records.
“It’s not the perfect solution but it’s real,” Wallenstein said. “It makes the ex-offender equal in terms of educational background; a high school diploma is one step in a work-involved future. The days of finding work without training or education are virtually over.”
Each year about 30 inmates complete the program to earn their GEDs, James said. Even better, the program is funded entirely by the inmates themselves, said Suzy Malagari, deputy warden for the Programs and Services branch of the department of correction.
Funds for the program are taken from money paid by inmates for commissary items, such as hygiene products, food and paper, Malagari said. The inmates are polled each year to determine how much of the commissary fund will go toward which programs and recreation services. Educational programs for inmates typically net from $20,000 to $30,000 per year, Malagari said.
“We feel really strongly that that money was spent by [the inmates] and it is our obligation to see that it is in turn spent on programs for them,” Malagari said.
Following the ceremony, in which three of Biddinger’s fellow graduates — Brandon Creary, Norisett Taylor and Johann Kassi — received $1,500 scholarships to attend Montgomery College upon their release, Biddinger caught up with Maureen Gianni, his longtime friend who supported him through his trial and conviction.
Although Biddinger is worried about the more limited educational opportunities and programs that will be available to him after he is sent to a state correctional facility next week for the remainder of his sentence, Friday’s ceremony and the months leading up to it inspired him to keep up his efforts toward higher learning.
“It’s exhilarating to know that the first steps are out of the way,” he said, explaining how he would like to pursue a career in information technology upon his release. “I’m not going to stop now.”
Gianni lent her own words of encouragement, with a playful smile.
“You’d better not,” she told him with a laugh. “Or I’ll kick your ass.”