Jessup, Maryland is home to the state’s only women’s prison, the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women, commonly known as “The Cut”. For years, advocates fought for a women’s pre-release center, which would house prisoners eligible to go out on work release, receive an income, and take family leave. Despite passing a bill into law mandating the construction of a women’s pre-release center, the state has only pledged $2 million towards its construction. Monica Cooper, founder and Executive Director of the Maryland Justice Project, joins Rattling the Bars to break down the significance of the pre-release center, why the state government is dragging its feet, and the real impact official inaction is having on women in The Cut.
Studio Production: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Mansa Musa: Thank you for joining me on this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m your host, Mansa Musa. The state of Maryland has never really known what to do with its population of incarcerated women. Women have always been an afterthought, as far as the prison system is concerned. And it has led to a perpetual state of neglect and disinvestment in the facilities and programs that incarcerated men get, but women don’t.
The Maryland Correctional Institute for Women, commonly called “The Cut,” is one of the oldest prisons in Maryland. In the 19th century, women were first housed in the quarters reserved for them at the Maryland Penitentiary. They were later lodged in a section of the Maryland House of Corrections, The Cut, which opened in 1879. Not until 1941 did the state construct a separate prison for women.
The Women’s Cut in Jessup was established in 1941 as the Women’s Prison of the State of Maryland. It was renamed in 1945 as the Maryland State Reformatory for Women. In 1962, it became the Maryland Institute for Women. Its present name was adopted in 1964. It housed prisoners from various custody levels: from minimum, medium security, to death row. After a two-year struggle to secure funding, 82 years later, the legislature passed a capital budget measurement to funnel $2 million toward the planning and construction of a woman’s pre-release center.
Joining me today to talk about the impact of this is Monica Cooper. Welcome, Monica. Tell our audience a little bit about yourself.
Monica Cooper: Yes, yes sir. First, I want to thank you for allowing me to be here and to speak on this topic here at Rattling the Bars. My name’s Monica Cooper. I’m the executive director of the Maryland Justice Project. We’ve been around since 2013 and our main goal was to try to push legislation that would help women and girls that are formerly incarcerated to have a better life and be able to have access to jobs, education, homes, and things like that. We’ve since pushed the boundaries some.
Realizing that one of the main things that a person needs; particularly women because they tend to be the breadwinners in the household and they tend to be the ones responsible for the children – One of the things that we’re pushing the boundaries of is in terms of moving women and girls into solar energy, moving women and girls into the tech fields, into robotics. Into those jobs that (1) are going to be around for years to come, and (2) that are going to pay a good salary. It’s hard for a woman that’s got three children to work at McDonald’s and is still expected to be able to provide a decent life for her children. So we’re pushing the bars a little bit and trying to be a part of the climate change initiative, the greening of our spaces.
Mansa Musa: Okay. So basically y’all are involved in all aspects of –
Monica Cooper: We are.
Mansa Musa: – Ensuring that women develop the necessary skills so they can have a quality life. Speaking of quality life, we have a situation in the state of Maryland, where we know for a fact that there’s only one prison that houses women. It’s called the Maryland Correctional Institute, commonly called The Cut. We recognize that when it comes to women in any prison system anywhere in the US, there’s a disconnect between them and the treatment that they’re getting or the lack of treatment that they’re getting, and that of men.
I’m going to outline, then you can walk us back through the progression. Y’all had got the Maryland General Assembly Legislature to pass a bill that highlighted the necessity for women to have a pre-release center. ‘Cause Maryland doesn’t have a pre-release center for women. And in getting that done, y’all was able to get the state legislature to mandate that the governor allocate money towards this project. Initially, y’all asked for $125,000. Y’all have since then gone back and got $2 million towards the building of this project.
Walk our audience through what exactly is going on. Because $2 million is not going to build anything in terms of providing a lesser security environment for women and allowing women to have the opportunity to be able to (1) go out on work release, (2) get an income, and (3) be able to have family leave. So unless they have these things, unless they have this institution, the chances of them being able to have that in any shape or form will never exist. Walk us through what exactly is going on with this pre-release system and the history of it.
Monica Cooper: Okay, a brief history: in 2016, the Maryland Justice Project went to Annapolis, not knowing who would sponsor such a bill. We sought out several candidates, we went to then-Sen. Barbara Robinson. We were having meetings with her, asking her if she would sponsor this bill to help us to get a pre-release center back open. Well, Sen. Robinson didn’t come back during the next legislative cycle when we finally got the support that we needed so we asked then-Del. Mary Washington if she would sponsor the bill. It failed. We brought it back again. This time she was now Sen. Mary Washington.
And we thought that the fiery candidate from Montgomery County, Charlotte Crutchfield, would be a great person to push this bill. When it comes to legislation, you really have to choose those people who are going to work hard for the bill; that’s going to rally people around this bill, their constituents, while the advocates do the on-the-ground work. That’s what the partnership is about because you have some legislators that don’t work at all unless it’s something that really, really suits them. They’ll have a hundred bills, but none of them pass, none of them are successful because they don’t really do the work that’s required.
But in the interest of time, the bill was passed in 2020. Then-Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the bill. We were able to come back the following legislative session in 2021 and get the override that we needed to make that thing law. So it became law in 2021. But what happened was, as I had mentioned earlier, one of my colleagues called it an economic veto. An economic veto is when the person in power doesn’t have the will to make this law become the law of the land. So what they’ll do is they will fail to put that money in the budget and that means you can’t do anything. It’s almost as if the veto was effective, so there’s an economic veto that stymies your efforts.
But what that previous governor didn’t know, is we are tenacious. We have had to set up meetings in the subcommittees, capital budget, public safety subcommittees, appropriations, wherever the money is. That’s where we had to go, which really caused me to learn something: when you really want to get something done, start where the money at.
Mansa Musa: That’s right. Show me the money.
Monica Cooper: Because all of it is going to end up in spaces where those people who are in control of the budget will have to vote on what we are actually going to spend this money on. So we all learned a great deal, and we were all excited to be in those spaces because those spaces are generally reserved for big-time lobbyists, those spaces are generally reserved for companies with a whole bunch of money, that get to have those back-door meetings and get to have the time of those people who sit on the finance committee. They are willing to give those people that time. But lowly advocates, very rarely do they see us and they are not even willing to give us their time in many cases.
We played good in the sandbox, we let them know that we want to be partners with them. So we had made some inroads where they don’t even hear from us. We would call and say, hey, can I meet with Senator So-and-So? Or, can we set up a meeting with Delegate So-and-So? Well, they’re busy. But if I called to say, I’m from the Xerox Company, if I called to say, I’m from Whiting-Turner, if I called to say, I’m from Potts & Callahan, Saputo – The big-time developers – They would set up meetings quick, fast, and in a hurry. So I was thrilled that they actually worked with us with some nudging.
We were able to get them. Because the legislation says that $2 million would’ve been allocated to do research or a study, what’s needed to go in this space. And it was another $150,000. Well, of course, we know and they know, that’s nowhere near the amount of money that we need to have this facility built. But in our mind, as long as it’s in the line item and it’s in the budget, the next logical step is to add more money to that budget line item. Because all the hard work had been done. But much to our surprise, we still were being stymied.
Mansa Musa: How so?
Monica Cooper: By folks who didn’t have the will to do so.
Mansa Musa: Okay. Okay.
Monica Cooper: The administrations have changed. So at this point, there’s really no reason why this project in this past session wasn’t fully funded. It should have been, we still have work to do. And we’re hoping that – Fully fund the project. It’s needed. It’s a Title IX issue. No lawyers are involved at this point. But you should not have to –
Mansa Musa: – and Title IX, for our audience, is?
Monica Cooper: – Title IX is an issue that says if you do it for the boys, you have to do it for the girls.
Mansa Musa: Okay. That’s what we need to have happen. That’s right.
Monica Cooper: If I can break that down for you. It’s against the law.
Mansa Musa: Right. To discriminate against women.
Monica Cooper: To discriminate against women. That’s in sports, that’s in every facet of our society. It all hinges on that Title IX issue.
Mansa Musa: And we know that the reason why it’s a Title IX and why we can invoke Title IX is because the men have pre-release. The men have family leave. The men have the ability to go out in the street and work, whereas the women, under the same Department of Corrections, under the same Public Safety and Correctional Service, under the same regulations and rules, don’t have these things. Okay, but tell me this, then: Why do you think it wasn’t fully funded in this past legislative session?
Monica Cooper: Well, the new historical-appointed Carolyn Scruggs, who made history being the first African American Secretary of Corrections – Hats off to the Moore administration, and hats off to our new secretary – Ms. Carolyn Scruggs has been in the business for about 27 or 28 years. In fact, I believe that her previous role was that of the re-entry person handling those things. She was a leftover. Well, I’ll say she was previously in the Hogan administration.
Mansa Musa: Under Green.
Monica Cooper: Under Rob Green. I don’t know what her personal decision might be, or her personal feeling about it. But I know that she didn’t budge, Green didn’t budge, and former Gov. Hogan didn’t budge when it came to this effort. And unfortunately, it feels that way still. It was said, well, that was an oversight. That they didn’t put it in there because if the annual budget comes out every year, then, the Department of Social Services, Department of Transportation, Department of Corrections, if they don’t make the request, then it’s not going to be put in there.
So it is my belief that the Department of Corrections didn’t even make the request. The Department of General Services as well played a role because they are the ones who are going to see this project through. And we believe that neither of them has been in a hurry to make this happen, even though it’s the law. They are breaking the law by not making that happen.
Mansa Musa: I did 48 years in the Maryland prison system and I was under the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Service. The Division of Corrections is the same system that the women are housed under. The same regulations exist: in order for men to get a reduction in security, they have what they call a point system. You accrue so many points and automatically, your security is reduced. When your security is reduced, you either move to another institution or are released. So when your security is reduced from medium security to minimum security, from minimum security to pre-release, all this is predicated on a number of factors.
But more importantly, the number one factor is the amount of time served. It automatically opens up the door for, whatever my sentence is, how much time I served on it. When I become parole-eligible, that means I serve at least one-fourth, and under new law, maybe one-half. But that automatically says that I’m entitled to a security reduction. How is this being done or exercised now, with The Women’s Cut being the only women’s prison and these different levels of security in these institutions? How are these women able to progress, or even have access to progress?
Monica Cooper: Well, unfortunately, what the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women has done under the Department of Corrections is, they had called themselves shutting down the one pre-release center that they had in the whole state for women. They shut it down and sent them all back to Jessup in 2009. When we were calling them on it, they decided that they would set up the pre-release inside the prison. That’s impossible.
Mansa Musa: Yes sir.
Monica Cooper: It’s impossible because it violates COMAR. There are regs, as they call them, there are regulations that say once a person reaches minimum pre-release and work release status, they are supposed to be housed in a specific manner. You’re not supposed to be housed behind wires, then a door, then another door, and another door. So the way that they are housed is against the law. But they call themselves having the pre-release center inside a facility that houses maximum, medium, and minimum. And they dug a hole for themselves because now that you have stymied the efforts to have a standalone facility, now you are forced to lie. Now you are forced to intentionally stagnate the progression of the women.
It’s women that are medium security that probably should be minimum or pre-release. But because they don’t have a facility to send them to, and they don’t want their numbers to rise, they stagnate them. So if you ask them, well, how many eligible folks do you have? They might say, we got 60. When in actuality, if you had classified them according to what COMAR says, you will probably have about 200. So what the Department of Corrections is, they continue to dig a hole for themselves. You know how when you tell one lie, then you got to tell another one? Then you got to remember that lie. Then you’re in this pickle, you’re in that pickle. That’s almost the situation that they are currently in now, honestly.
Mansa Musa: Okay. And as we close out, I want you to highlight where are y’all going next. Because as you outlined, women are being stagnated by virtue of this intransigent attitude toward putting money in there. And shovel, dirt, dig, build. Where do y’all go now? Y’all got $2 million, and y’all strategies seem to be working in holding their feet to the fire. Where do y’all go now? And when do you envision this entity or your work coming into fruition, in the form of a pre-release being, and coming into existence?
Monica Cooper: Well, our legislative sessions here in Maryland are usually from January 9 or 11, up until April 15. We have a 90-day session here. In those entire 90 days, we are constantly setting up meetings, trying to come into spaces to talk about our work, and trying to gain some support from the community at large. So one of our next steps is going to be to go back yet again, even more firmly, and ask that we be fully funded. But this time we are going back with even more supporters. And we’re going back with a little more statistics and a little more facts.
Because when you’re in these spaces, it’s not only for work release. It’s not only to be able to go home. This facility is the more concentrated effort on preparing you to go home. That’s why it’s called the pre-release. This is pre-exiting. So during your pre-exiting, you have to be strong enough to fight your urges to use drugs. You have to have a foundation of training so that you can get a job and maintain a job. We should never send anybody home from incarceration unemployed. Everybody that exits a facility should have a job before they come home so they’re already coming into the community being functional. They’re already coming into a community helping to build that tax base that we need for our schools, for our roads, those things that we need. So they’re doing a disservice by having a record number of overdoses at MCIW.
Mansa Musa: Yeah, I already know. That’s right.
Monica Cooper: They’re doing themselves a disservice by sending a woman home that hasn’t had a chance for training. She hasn’t had a chance to get a job. You’re sending her home in the same situation that she came in the prison with and it’s a disservice because if you had that facility, you would be able to concentrate on those things and produce and send home people who are less likely to re-offend. So we’re coming back with more facts and more statistics and stronger advocacy.
We have been staying away from using the court system in trying to work with the administration and everything. But it’s a sin and a shame that you would have to take somebody to court for something like this. This is obvious. There’s no way in the world that a logical-thinking person wouldn’t say, well we have all of these facilities for men, but we don’t have any for women. That’s small. There’s no way. You don’t have to have somebody prove to you why you need it. In fact, the Women’s Pre-Release Center came online in the ’70s. They were called Community Rehabilitative Centers.
Mansa Musa: Rehabilitation Centers. Right.
Monica Cooper: So because you took it away, put it back.
Mansa Musa: That’s all. That’s simple as that.
Monica Cooper: So we’re coming out strong, and we need a lot of support.
Mansa Musa: All right. Talk about that. Talk about how our audience can get in touch with you. What do you want our audience to do?
Monica Cooper: Info@marylandjusticeproject.org. And Maryland is written completely out. We’re going to need everybody. And I promise you that we can do this but we got to do it collectively, and we got to push back. And it doesn’t matter what party you belong to. This is not about a particular party.
Mansa Musa: It’s not about politics, it’s about humanity.
Monica Cooper: It’s not about a particular individual. It’s about people seeing that this is what we need, and getting it done. If you can spend $50 billion to study oysters, bluefish, and things like that; these things that I love. I love the Maryland blue crab. But if you take a look at the budget and see how some of that money is being spent on some of those studies, even on a federal level, you look at the budget, you say, doggone, man. They’re studying how plants open and close. They gave the National Institute of Health $40 million to study if the sun is going to wink at you. If you look at it, some of the stuff that they actually put monies towards, it’s like, come on. This is a simple kind of fix.
Mansa Musa: That’s right. Okay. So there you have it. The Real News, Rattling the Bars, Monica Cooper. As she outlined, this is a matter of humanity, this is not a matter of earmarking money for something that is not going to have a return. It’s a matter of giving women the same equal rights that you give everybody else. Monica, thank you for joining us today.
Monica Cooper: My pleasure. I look forward to coming back.
Mansa Musa: We appreciate you and we look forward to you coming back. We know that you have a hard schedule today, but we look forward to you coming back. And more importantly, coming back and telling us that the money has been allocated, and women will be given equal opportunity to return to society as they should be. Thank you very much.
Monica Cooper: Thank you.
Mansa Musa: And we ask you to continue to support Rattling the Bars and The Real News. It’s only on Rattling the Bars and The Real News that you get this information about what’s going on with women in the Maryland prison system. More importantly, how we can change this narrative. How we can get our families, our friends, and our loved ones to support the efforts that are being done to get a woman’s pre-release center built that will provide the opportunity for women to come out with jobs, come out with education, come out with the skills that they’ll be able to use to stay in society. And more importantly, to repair their lives and bring up their children. Thank you.
We are sending out condolences to the family members of Mutulu Shakur, an activist and member of the Black Liberation Army. He transitioned July 7. He was 72 years old, a political prisoner of war. Mutulu was incarcerated for 36 years before being granted parole in December of 2022, due to his declining health. He was denied parole nine times and diagnosed with terminal bone marrow cancer, with doctors giving him six months to live. Rest in Power, Dr. Mutulu Shakur.