Gerald T. Balone: The power of education personified

You might never read a more dramatic before and after story than that of Jerry Balone. Aligned on one side are all the usual suspects—neglect, poverty, gangs, indifference, labels, crime, anger, violence, revenge, hatred. The other side has only two members: education and dreams. Are they enough to defeat a lifetime of neglect, violence, anger, and imprisonment?

Before

I loved being a criminal,” says Gerald T. Balone in the same tone someone would state his name. “From the time I was a little kid on, I wanted to be a gangster, a killer, and a thug.”

Balone was first arrested at age eight, dropped out of school in fifth grade. No one cared.  A few years and arrests later, he became a member of the aptly named Savage Ones, a gang formed in the downtrodden streets of Buffalo, New York.
The self-described hoodlum fully realized that this lifestyle would probably land him in prison, but he figured he would have no problems in prison.


“I had never been anywhere, never done anything, so in lots of ways prison was easier for me than it would be for others. If I had had a loving family, it might have been different, but I was truly a product of the system. I was abandoned in the hospital at birth then put in orphanages and foster homes. I became institutionalized the day of my birth.”

On April 24, 1973 Balone was arrested yet again. This time, he had killed three people while robbing a house. The young man with piercing eyes was sentenced to 50 years in prison with a recommendation he never be paroled. He spent 37 ½ years in many of New York’s most notorious prisons, including Attica.

“I really was an animal,” he admits. “I was a vicious person. My greatest claim to fame is that no one had done anything to me physically in prison. You forget that there is a world out here and get addicted to the prison lifestyle. In prison everyone knows you. Out in the world, you are nobody.”

After

“The past three-and one-half years have been the best of my life,” says Balone of the time since his improbable parole on August 14, 2007.  His goals have changed—dramatically.

Balone has spoken to more than 20,000 people, most of them children, and been a guest on 13 radio stations. Newspapers have told his story. Most importantly to Balone, kids listen and connect with him. His goal now is to keep them from even taking one step down the path he chose.
He talks to young people bluntly and honestly.

“Once you are caught up in the criminal lifestyle and particularly once you have a felony record, you never really have a chance,” Balone warns. “There are background checks for good jobs, and no matter how rehabilitated you are, others never forget what you have done.”


To educators Balone all but pleads: Reach these kids before that happens.”


The kids themselves are receptive. Many linger with questions of how they should handle a situation.
Balone asks if they have spoken to their parents, teachers, or clergy. They usually haven’t because their answers often come with judgments. Balone offers no judgments and no real answers. Instead, he listens carefully and then asks the child: “What do you think you should do? I know what you want to do, but what do you think you should do?
“They just want to be affirmed. They want to know they are not soft or a punk if they walk away from a fight. They need to be heard.”

Back in the real world, Balone is realistic about the effect of his life story.

“My story is not a pretty story,” Balone acknowledges, and “not everyone going to embrace me and love me.” He accepts that. “What is the alternative?” he asks.
Outside the lecture hall, life is still tough. Jobs are all but impossible to come by, and they are humble ones when they come, never requiring the level of education he has attained. He volunteers in a rehabilitation house. It is much like the work he did in prison as a coach on a grievance committee.

He still mostly eats what he did in prison—tuna fish and peanut butter. He is a “neat freak.” All the labels in his pantry must face forward. He can’t sit still. He sleeps only two or three hours a night. Prison has clearly taken its toll.

But prison wasn’t all bad compared to the outside world. In prison, there was always someone to friend. Not so in the free world. “Nobody wants to be around ex-cons,” he acknowledges. “Many have not forgotten what I did to go to prison in the first place.”

But Balone says he throws no pity parties.

“They took a great chance on me,” Balone remembers instead.

The Turning Point

The striking change in Balone started with just another con on his part.
“I signed up to take the GED with the intention of fooling everybody,” Balone recalls. “It was all game and faking at first. I didn’t want to learn.”

Balone was given the GED pre-test, and he passed. Two weeks but no preparation later he took the GED and earned a 273. He only needed 230 to pass.

“I got my GED in 1983 while in Attica, but didn’t take any college courses until 1990,” he recalls. “I was still a thug and a hoodlum. I wasn’t planning to use my GED for anything, plus I was always on the road, being sent from prison to prison.”

Deemed one of the 64 most dangerous prisoners in New York, Balone was sent to the Shawangunk Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison and placed in the Close Supervision Unit. The only way out of his cell was taking educational and therapeutic programs.

Balone signed up for college classes and became a voracious reader.

“It was the turning point of my life,” he says. “I couldn’t get enough to read.”
Balone particularly liked autobiographies and soon noticed a common thread: none of the authors blamed others and all took action to change their circumstances. He followed suite, taking every college class he could and ultimately earning 250 college credits in prison, enough for a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology and two master’s degrees.

Many opposed his education, according to Balone.

“Why waste money on people like me?” they would question, “but I kept on learning and learning.

“I never realized others had gone through the same things as I did. I started studying biology and criminality. I was learning therapeutic things about addictions. So much of it applied to me and why I became a criminal. I learned about bonding as a child. Nature versus nurture. I was never hugged. I was always rejected. When I started reading Inside the Criminal Mind, I realized why I had become who I had become. It was a true epiphany. It opened my eyes to so many things.”

Balone laments the lack of college programs in most prisons today.

“Education made me believe that I could be something different. I truly regret the crimes I committed. People say I wasted my whole life in there, but I can’t say that.

When I started becoming educated, I applied it. I show that people can change, and I offer hope to those still in prison.

“I have good days and bad days, just like everyone else now. What got me through 37 1/2 years in prison gets me through each day. I still dream that tomorrow will be better than today.”
 
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in KET’s Adult Learning Magazine, Spring 2011.  It is used with permission.