Maryland inmates wash bras to support breast cancer charity efforts

The bras were donated as part of Katie Walls' Bras for a Cause, and once they were clean, the bras would be distributed among women's shelters as part of a charity drive that would raise money and awareness for breast cancer.

Earl Lowe and Eric Johns stood next to a giant washing machine and began to load in hundreds of bras, donated as part of Katie Walls' Bras for a Cause, and once they were clean, the undergarments would be distributed among women's shelters as part of a charity drive that would raise money and awareness for breast cancer.

Both Lowe and Johns volunteered to work laundry duty Thursday at the Central Maryland Correctional Facility in Sykesville because the two men each had a connection to breast cancer — Lowe's wife is in remission after battling the disease and Johns lost his grandmother. By washing, drying and folding the donated bras, the two inmates were able to join in the fight against breast cancer, despite being locked behind bars.


"I'm here today celebrating breast cancer (awareness) and to show you all that we're aware inside and outside," said Johns, 30.

The Maryland Correctional Enterprises, a company that provides inmates with jobs while incarcerated and helps them with rehabilitation and re-entry, has been washing bras as part of breast cancer awareness for more than seven years, said Jillian Hughes, the company's marketing coordinator. This year, the inmates washed 2,000 bras, and for each bra donated, the event sponsors donate $1 to the Upper Chesapeake Cancer LifeNet, Hughes said.

"Our guys really love doing it and look forward to it every year," she said.

The Katie Walls' Bras for a Cause has raised more than $20,000 for the Upper Chesapeake Cancer LifeNet since 2012, said Sarah Karantonis, director of advancement for the Upper Chesapeake Health Foundation. Cancer LifeNet, located at the Kaufman Cancer Center at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air, offers nurse navigator and supportive care services at no charge for all individuals with a cancer diagnosis in Harford and Cecil counties, regardless of where they receive treatment, Karantonis said.

"The program, funded fully through philanthropy, helps individuals find the services they need to balance work, family and cancer treatment," she said. "Katie's commitment to hosting this annual event is an incredible example of neighbors caring for neighbors."

Maryland Correctional Enterprises first started the bra washing after one of its managers heard a radio ad advertising an event similar to Bras for a Cause. The radio station stopped the fundraiser a couple years ago, and Maryland Correctional Enterprises partnered with Walls, Hughes said.

"I really enjoy the inmates getting involved," said Katie Walls Hargrove, founder of the annual Bras for a Cause drive in Harford County. "I think it's great they have an opportunity to be involved in the community."

She noted the bra washing gives the inmates a chance to help in the fight against breast cancer despite being in prison.

"They're still able to help out in the community and be touched by what we're doing with Bras for a Cause," she said.

Lowe, 60, said he tries to participate in as many breast cancer awareness events as possible. When his wife was fighting breast cancer, he said he became closer to her.

"It's an everyday situation," Lowe said. "You have to make the most of every day with something like this."

His wife is now in remission but is still taking medication and facing medical problems. At home, Lowe would handle the majority of household responsibilities, including laundry.

"I'm not where I should be," Lowe said. "I should be helping her."

As an inmate, Lowe works in the laundry facility through Maryland Correctional Facility, making it easy for him to participate in the Bras for a Cause washing.


For Johns, he had to volunteer to help raise awareness. He is up for parole next month and typically works in the clerk's office, he said.

Johns lost his grandmother to breast cancer when he was a boy, and said it broke his family apart because all family gatherings were held at her house.

"It has a personal connection for me," he said. "My grandmother and I were really close when I was young."

Johns described his grandmother as a joyful woman.

"I couldn't believe it because she didn't look sick," he said.

Beyond Bras for a Cause, Johns said the inmates at the Central Maryland Correctional Facility participate in other charity events or national trends, such as "No Shave November" or wearing pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October.

"Just because we're down and behind a wall, we still have morals and values we'd like to share with the outside world," Johns said.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter David Anderson contributed to this article.