'It is torture': Women in Maryland’s prisons have nowhere to turn

Pre-release and minimum security facilities connect incarcerated individuals to essential resources for re-entering society and to opportunities for work release, special leave, compassionate leave, and family leave. In the state of Maryland, there are nine separate pre-release and minimum security facilities for men; for women, there are zero. “At the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCI-W) in Jessup, Maryland,” as noted by the grassroots nonprofit Out for Justice, “as many as 1 in 10 women have achieved pre-release status. However, as many as 30% of the women on pre-release status have not been assigned to a work opportunity.”

In this episode of Rattling the Bars, Eddie Conway and Charles Hopkins (Mansa Musa) speak with Nicole Hanson-Mundell, executive director of Out For Justice, about the Maryland Gender-Responsive Prerelease Act and the fight to add the construction of a standalone, community-based prerelease facility for women to the Department of Public and Correctional Service budget during their hearing on Feb. 17, 2022.

Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

Eddie Conway:            Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. Women prisoners remain unnoticed and uncared for in the prison-industrial complex. Maryland is one of the states not giving women the same rights they give men. Here to talk about this is Nicole Hanson, the director of Out For Justice. Thanks for joining us, Nicole.

Nicole Hanson-Mundell:     Thank you for having me, Eddie. Yes, I am Nicole Hanson-Mundell, executive director of Out For Justice. Thanks for having me.

Eddie Conway:                 Okay. And also joining me is my co-host, Mansa Musa.

Charles Hopkins:             Thank you, Eddie, and thank you, Nicole, for joining us today.

Eddie Conway:                      Okay. Nicole, kind of give us a background on this latest abuse of women’s rights in prison.

Nicole Hanson-Mundell:       Yes. I think abuse is an understatement. It is torture, what is happening to our mothers, our daughters, our sisters, our aunties, up there at the Maryland’s only women’s prison in this state, known as MCIW. What we know, Eddie, is that in 2019, legislation was passed to ensure the Maryland Women’s Equity Act that ensured that the State of Maryland must, must provide a separate brick and mortar prerelease facility to our women. What we know is that our current Governor Hogan, a Republican governor, decided that women were not on his radar, and especially women coming home from our prisons and jails. And so what he decided to do was he decided to veto that bill.

So in 2020 at the height of COVID, seconds before the Maryland legislature was going to shut down because of a known pandemic that was plaguing the country and ultimately the world, Senator Mary Washington and delegate Crutchfield was able to take our veto override over the finish line in the final hours and ensure that the State of Maryland officially had to make sure that there was a separate brick and mortar prerelease facility for our women coming out of prison and jail.

Eddie Conway:               Mansa?

Nicole Hanson-Mundell:      And so, as a result.

Eddie Conway:                   Mansa?

Charles Hopkins:                  Hey Nicole, let’s pick up right there, because, as you said, both, you have a House bill and you got a Senate bill, and both of these bills are emphatic in terms of the progression of the brick and mortar.

Nicole Hanson-Mundell:       Right.

Charles Hopkins:                  But let’s pick up on why none of these things took place. Because you had the initiative that… The bill was written in such a manner that we would be able to track the progress that’s being made in terms.

Nicole Hanson-Mundell:     Right.

Charles Hopkins:             Of this envision.

Nicole Hanson-Mundell:       Right.

Charles Hopkins:                  So let’s… Go there. Take us through that. Why are these things not taking place even though we got this law saying that they should take place? Why are they not taking place?

Nicole Hanson-Mundell:       You know, I honestly feel like… Do you want me to be blunt?

Charles Hopkins:                 Be blunt.

Eddie Conway:                    Please.

Charles Hopkins:                    Please.

Nicole Hanson-Mundell:        Because they don’t give a fuck about Black women, specifically.

Charles Hopkins:             Come on.

Nicole Hanson-Mundell:       Because this issue will predominantly impact Black women. We know the steps that need to happen. We need to go now to budget and tax, which is on the Senate side, and appropriations. And those individuals must now determine how much money is allocated in the budget that will begin to make sure that the Department of Corrections has the necessary funding and would start the planning. Because what we didn’t want to be a part of is a bill that was empty. That said do a thing, but didn’t hold the agency accountable. Secretary Green decided to not spend the $1.5 million that was allocated that year. And he decided to not spend it. And guess what happened? That money went back into the general fund. $1.5 million dollars was lost in planning dollars to be on track with what this would be.

This women’s separate facility that would support women who were prerelease eligible. And instead, he let it go back into the general fund. So the reality is this is not a priority for the Department of Corrections, because if it was they would have followed the plan, they would have asked for this money. And even this current budget, you don’t see anywhere in the governor’s budget that came out where the Department of Corrections is asking for a certain amount of dollars for this women’s prerelease facility. They want to act like they don’t have a problem. They want to act like that they can have a successful prerelease facility in a maximum security institution. Secretary Green, while he’s a charismatic guy, and while he has run a co-ed facility out in MoCo with all of its challenges, he wants to show that it is possible to have a prerelease facility out in Jessup at a maximum security facility, even though the legislature has spoken.

And so what it says is that the Department of Corrections does not respect lawmakers. That’s what it’s saying. Because we know what needs to happen. The money was originally allocated, $1.5, and the bill was reabsorbed into the general fund. The governor had submitted a budget without prerelease, and we want to get a bill in by the first weeks, this week. We need an amendment in budget and tax that will say this money should be allocated.

We’ve reached out to several legislators who will not respond to us, but we believe there are some other ways that we can get it. We can get this money in the capital budget hearing, it’s approaching. We can get it there. We can get it using some federal dollars. The American Rescue Capital Fund could also pay for this project. And so we’re going to target these budget hearings at the Department of Corrections that is coming up on the 17th. We’re going to target budget and tax. We’re going to send out the action alerts. We’re going to be at every hearing the Department of Corrections is in to bring this issue up.

Charles Hopkins:          All right, Nicole.

Nicole Hanson-Mundell:       We are going to [crosstalk] Yes.

Charles Hopkins:                 Okay. Let’s put up a human face on this. Because you open up by saying it’s torture. So let’s let our viewers and listeners put a human face on it. We’re talking about women that are eligible to return to society at some point in time. And in the immediate sense, maybe six, seven, or eight months. So how do we address these women’s needs? Because this is a need, we are talking about brick and mortar. We are talking about getting the monies, but also in this bill was the progression of allowing women to be able to progress. So what are you all doing in terms of trying to identify creative ways to get the women into these work release spaces? Even though we know that they’re in maximum security facilities, women’s house of correction.

Nicole Hanson-Mundell:      Yep. And so, in normal fashion, you have the Maryland Justice Project, who actually was the organization who brought this issue to Out For Justice in the first place. In 2017, Monica Cooper and Etta Myers, who was the only woman Unger to come out and touch these soils here, brought these issues to Out For Justice to say, listen, let’s collaborate. We need that extra push to get this bill over the finish line. So I want to make sure that that’s very clear of the women who laid the foundation for which this work started. And it is through those women, it is through the work of OFJ and our other partners that we are receiving our women through Life After Release, which is an organization that’s led out there in Prince George’s county by another woman who did almost three years at MCIW. She’s leading the organization that’s supporting women’s housing costs.

And so getting women into trades, helping them with training. And the other thing that we’re doing is making sure that we are providing the ecosystem here for our women to come out of those prison jails and learn things like computer trade skills. Learn things like building a resume and then creating a space where we can then hire them, right now. A woman who just left prison, oh, less than a year ago is now the office administrator for Out For Justice. And so this is not just this transactional situation. We keep us safe. And we keep our women safe. And by doing that, because we’re formerly incarcerated women, we know that there’s going to be some housing needs. And so when I’m looking for funding, I’m looking for unrestricted funding to make sure that I can give women four to five hundred dollars in a stipend for housing, because I know that’s what they’re going to need. When I’m looking for funding, I’m making sure that I can be flexible with how, if I can Uber them or I can give them a bus pass.

I need to be flexible with how I can spend money on daycare and the like, and making sure that our resources… Because remember, Out For Justice is a policy org. The foundation by which we were built was to change laws and policies that will impact the masses. But indirectly we’ve become this direct service organization just by default because we are the population that we’re advocating for. And so we are ensuring that we have airtight resource connection to community through these mental health supports, and making sure that when we’re referring our women to these programs, like the Marian House, like all these other resources, that they actually work, that they got funding, that they’re treating our women fairly, that they’re treating our women equitably. We’re working with organizations like Rowdy Orbit who just got a contract to be able to provide wifi in underserved communities.

And he’s looking for women. We’re working with people like Mr. Paul Coates, who has a Black printing company and wants to hire and train women in that field. And so we are doing our very best to make sure that the women who are coming home in the immediate future have access to what we have to offer. Because, quite frankly, the Department of Corrections are not offering anything to our women other than a gas station job, and a McDonald’s job, and dropping them off in a prison van. And quite frankly, that is retraumatizing our women. When you are simply saying that our women only deserve a McDonald’s job, that our women only deserve to go back to that truck stop that sex trafficked them in the first place, that is a problem for us. And so what we are doing is keeping each other safe and making sure that our women are able to call us and talk to us. Monica is on the phone daily with women at MCIW. So, that’s what we’re doing creatively.

Eddie Conway:                  Okay.

Nicole Hanson-Mundell:       [Inaudible] That can come out of the department of corrections at this moment.

Eddie Conway:                    You said earlier that you were going to do something on the 17th. Well, talk about that for a minute.

Nicole Hanson-Mundell:      Okay. So what we want to do is we want to target the budget and tax committee. And what we’re urging your listeners to do is to get in touch with the Maryland General Assembly Budget and Tax Committee, that’s on the Senate side, and urge them to propose. To make the proposal, to make the amendment in the budget that would give us the dollars, of what, a million dollars to begin to start this project. So refill this women’s prerelease project. Give the department the money that they had in the past, but let it go. But then to also be able to put some provisions that that money cannot go back into the general fund, that the monies that they allocate must be spent on the development of what this women’s prerelease facility should look like. So that’s our very immediate next step is the budget and tax committee, and having people swarm their phones, their emails, saying, fund prerelease, put prerelease as a priority to this committee, utilize the capital budget to do so.

Eddie Conway:                  Is there transportation down there from your organization? Or how do people get there for the hearing?

Nicole Hanson-Mundell:       Well, the budget process goes a little different. We’re not introducing a bill, per se. We are asking the legislators on that committee to make the amendment, to say it. To get it on the record that we will put this in the budget. That’s the way it comes out. It has to come out on the record. It’s not like we’re introducing a separate bill, where we could have, we could have done that, but we were a little behind this year trying to get in touch with lawmakers. And it seems like they knew we needed it to happen but everybody was backing up from introducing a funding bill. So we found another way around. We found a way that in the subcommittee, if the subcommittee speaks it then this could be something that could essentially go into the budget.

And so right now they are not allowing people in person down there in Annapolis. What we did find out is that when it’s time to vote on other bills, that there will be some public access inside of the voting committees. And that is to come. There are groups like Common Cause Maryland, led by its first Black executive director, Joanne, who has been leading the fight to ensure that the state legislature opens up to the people. And if they’re going to do it in a virtual way that they do it in an equitable way, they do it in a realistic way. They do it in a way that understands that the majority of people don’t have the type of access to the internet or the knowledge about the computer that they have. And so making sure that the process is fair if and when we go back in person. But we are not [crosstalk] Right now, unfortunately.

Charles Hopkins:             Hey, Hey Nicole. So at this juncture, have you all considered, if all things fail, have you all considered taking legal action to make them, to get a mandate, to get some kind of court order to say that this should exist? Because we’re talking about something that should have been in existence some 30 years ago. The women’s [inaudible] is as old as the major… These new institutions. So the money’s always been there to build the institutions. So have you all looked at that? Have you all looked at that as an alternative, to make them, to get an order to make them?

Nicole Hanson-Mundell:      Yes sir. Yes sir, we have. Yes sir, we have. And we are open to talking to you on the back end about when we are there. As you know, with litigation, you have to make sure that you exhaust all measures. We have to make sure that we exhaust all measures. And so that’s what we’re doing. We’re making sure that no one can say that we did not come to them. No one can claim that they did not know, that they were not given an opportunity to fund us. There was a hearing that happened somewhat last week. Where, despite the department’s recent kind of inaccurate… They made these really inaccurate statements, their own annual report indicates that men still had multiple dedicated prerelease facilities. The last available annual report was in 2019.

And so that briefing allowed for some really important questions to be answered in that briefing that one would need for litigation. And so, we know where the former facility was. We made them talk about, as a cause containment action, the previous administration decided to close it. We made sure they were updated about that. In 2009, the funding for BPRU was eliminated from the budget. And then FY 2010, then BPRU formerly housed 144 prereleased women and minimum security female, people behind the walls and approximately 25 to 30 women left that facility daily for work release. So we wanted to make sure that all of those factors were on the record. And as Eddie know, and as you know, there are some things you got to do before you litigate. So that’s what we’re doing.

Charles Hopkins:             Hey Nicole, let me ask you this here. What’s the spirit of our sisters in WCI under the… All things considered, COVID and they’re being subjected to this apartheid-type mentality when it come to prerelease for women. What are our sisters’ spirits like?

Nicole Hanson-Mundell:      You have some women that are hopeful. They’re seeing their fellow sisters being released and so that keeps them hopeful. They are hearing from the women, that keeps them hopeful. They’re able to see pictures of women getting their own homes and engaging with their families and that keeps them hopeful. But there’s still a very, very depressing scenario there. As you would expect in any prison, whether it’s a male or female. When our women… We had women who died, they saw women die during COVID. They saw how women were not given the proper medical attention during COVID. Women’s cellmates were dying in their arms. They see that women are dying for things like breast cancer because they’re not able to go to the doctor and get their types of radiology. They’re seeing that the programs have been cut.

They’re still dealing with… When a woman decides to stand up for herself she gets shipped over to Patuxent to be quiet. And so, there’s a level of hope. That always surfaces and all in our prison and jails. But then there’s a level of despair, a great level of despair. It’s this feeling of being defeated, and you just don’t want to continue anymore because they don’t see the change. With prerelease, they know we’re doing something. And that’s what keeps me inspired. Because when we start to talk about prerelease, the department starts to do this shuffling and stuff. Well, during 2020, somehow all the women got a notice that they were going to be moved, and got their spirits up to be moved nowhere.

And the department made it as if it was on us, that the advocates stopped that, when in fact there was nowhere for them to go. They had nowhere for them to go. They started taking women’s lockers and just doing all kinds of things that would incite fear. We know that Chippendale, at the height of 2019, when we bust out we’re over 20 coalition partners for this work, and The Real News was covering us and the Baltimore Sun was covering us. We saw that Chippendale would go to people’s cells personally and threaten them and let them know, I heard you on that phone call. I heard you talking to those advocates. And if you want this, this, and this, you’d better stop. If you don’t want to go to solitary, you’d better stop.

So the women know that we are fighting for them, but it’s still a very stressful, demeaning situation to be in, especially for our women who know that they deserve prerelease, who know they’re within 18 months of their release, they want to repeat, reintegrated with their children. They want to start saving their money. The women who do go out to work release, 30% to 40% of their income goes to the Department of Corrections. They don’t do that in places like Virginia. In places like Virginia and Pennsylvania, they save those women’s money. They’ll take a portion of your paycheck, but they will also put it in an account so when you leave, that is your money. You know what I mean? And so there are so many things that the Department of Corrections could be doing to begin to show us and show the women that they do believe that women should have an equitable prerelease, but they refuse to do it at this moment.

And they’ve allowed a woman named Margaret Chippendale to wreak havoc at that women’s facility for over a decade. When she was a social worker back at BPRU, we heard she was the one behind the scenes convincing them that they can have the prerelease at MCIW. She’s, in fact, over there wreaking havoc with the men [inaudible] right now. You know what I mean? So when we thought that she was going to be shipped out of the department, they shipped her over to the male’s prerelease facility.

Eddie Conway:                Tell me, Nicole, what can the public do to support the women, to support your organization, and to support the coalition? What can they do beyond getting in touch with the committee hearings to help the women out? To help you all?

Nicole Hanson-Mundell:    Well, one, please visit our website at www.out4justice.org. We want people to become members of Out For Justice. Whether you are directly impacted, indirectly impacted, or you really want to see change in this criminal legal system, get involved in the work. Find your local community advocacy arms and get involved in this work here in Maryland, because we need all voices at the table to ensure that women get what they deserve and get what the bill requires them to have. We have our monthly membership meetings virtually and a hybrid approach in person. If you happen to be in Baltimore you can stop by every last Wednesday of the month between 6:00 and 8:00 to 1400 East Federal Street.

You could sign up to be a part of our newsletter, where you get up to date action items on what we’re doing and how we’re supporting women both behind the walls and our women who have returned. You could donate to the cause. Our money goes directly to the people on the ground. If it’s not covering the team member and making sure we’re paying a formerly incarcerated person an equitable salary, that money gets to the people on the ground. And so you should be sure that by contributing here, that money is going directly to one of the women or even men. Because we don’t just… Do work for men, but even though we’re talking about women’s prerelease, it’s important to know that we also support our brothers coming home as well.

Eddie Conway:                  Mansa, you get the last question.

Charles Hopkins:                All right. Hey Nicole, in terms of… Educate our audience about the whole process of why women should be allowed to go on prerelease, and understand that the progression that once a person served so much time they automatically become eligible. So educate them, because a lot of the women that you talked about, they probably died from COVID or had COVID, could have been in prerelease and been home by now.

Nicole Hanson-Mundell:     Exactly. And so in the state of Maryland, when you are within 18 months of your release you are eligible for what’s called prerelease. That means that you damn near done your time. You haven’t had any major infractions. And that means that within those 18 months of your eligibility, you are allowed in and out of the community. You are allowed to start to integrate back into society. You’re allowed to go visit your children on the weekend. You’re allowed to go work on the weekend. You should be allowed to go engage at the library, to go learn the internet and go learn the computer. You should be allowed to go take some classes at the local university. That is the time… And often we talk about that your reentry should start the day you get your time in court.

But what we know is that the prerelease eligible time is a crucial time. It is the most valuable time to a person coming out because it starts to prep them. It’s not like you are just sending them out straight to the community from this crazy jungle of an environment, that you’re slowly navigating them back. These are people who deserve it. These are people who work their butt off all those years they were in there to not get in trouble, to do the right thing, to go to class, to go to chapel. And they get within that time frame, and the Department of Corrections decide to play with their classification status and not classify them. So that they can dupe the numbers to say, we only got 40 eligible, but you really got 200 eligible.

And so that 18 months is that crucial time for a woman to really start to figure out what’s her next step. Where’s she going to go? Where’s she going to live? Who’s she going to live with? Oftentimes, when women come home from our prisons and jails, their kids are dropped off right there to them, right there. Bye. See you later. People can’t wait to give us our kids back. That doesn’t happen for men. Men don’t get their five kids that they birth with the one baby mother they got or the two baby mothers. Nobody drops men’s kids off at the doorstep. Nobody expects men to just come straight out and have to take care of these kids he made. It doesn’t work like that. But for women, the minute we touch down, grandmothers, aunties, whoever was taking care of our kids, give us our kids back immediately.

We ain’t got a food stamp. We ain’t apply for a benefit. We ain’t found a job. Nothing. And they give us back our kids. As if we’re supposed to just know what to do. So that is why prerelease is so important. That is why separating the woman from a prison and putting her in a community-based setting is so crucial, because it prepares her for what society is going to expect that she has to figure it out. Even though she was gone for a significant amount of time, she will have to figure it out. And so having this separate brick and mortar plac based in a community, will help her. When she leaves out of there, oh, she knows that this is the 14 bus stop, that this is the North Avenue bus stop that goes from East to West Baltimore.

She knows how to navigate the bus lines. And she knows how to start catching an Uber. And she knows the safe places to go in the community and maybe the not so safe places to go. Women can come out and the last thing that was in their property is all red and they end up in a neighborhood that’s full of all blue. That’s putting that woman in danger. But because she didn’t have a prerelease facility, she didn’t even realize what communities maybe you might not need to go through. You might need to go around here. So it’s so many reasons why, especially mental health.

Finding a therapist, finding a psychiatrist, finding an obstetrician, a doctor for her body. To really begin to think about all the things that were ignored about her body inside of a prison. They’re not worried about the woman’s reproductive systems at MCIW, they’re not worried about the woman’s back issues in MCIW. And so, in a prerelease facility, a separate brick and mortar community-based center, we can have these abundance of community resources come to this place and offer these services, or it allows our women quicker access, more access to these community-based alternatives.

Charles Hopkins:               Very well put, very well put. Eddie?

Eddie Conway:                       Okay. So Nicole, thank you for joining us.

Nicole Hanson-Mundell:       Thank you for having me.

Eddie Conway:              Okay. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.

Eddie Conway

Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.

Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa, also known as Charles Hopkins, is a 70-year-old social activist and former Black Panther. He was released from prison on December 5, 2019, after serving 48 years, nine months, 5 days, 16 hours, 10 minutes. He co-hosts the TRNN original show Rattling the Bars.