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Maryland's correctional system needs a facility dedicated to helping women transition to life outside of prison.
Maryland's correctional system needs a facility dedicated to helping women transition to life outside of prison. (JED KIRSCHBAUM/Baltimore Sun)

If we want the incarcerated to rejoin society and do well after imprisonment, we have to prepare them before they are released. That means connecting people with health insurance coverage, assisting with training that improves the chances of getting a job, or offering GED classes for those who don’t have high school degrees.

Maryland corrections officials appear to get that — to an extent.

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The problem is that the state seems to be executing a bit of gender inequality when it comes to who has access to such reentry services in Maryland’s correctional system.

No pre-release facility dedicated to women exists in the state, a fact that hearkens back to the era of June Cleaver, when women were supposed to take a backseat to men — meet the needs of the man and worry about the woman later.

Advocates have complained about the lack of such a facility for several years, but to no avail. Instead, the state has chosen to convert the vacant Brockbridge Correctional facility, a former minimum-security prison for men that’s been empty since November, into a pre-release, re-entry center for both men and women.

That doesn’t go far enough. Thanks to a short-sighted decision to close a center for women a decade ago to save money, the only services currently offered to women are found within a unit of the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women. Meanwhile, there are five facilities for men. Can’t we have just one solely for women as well?

Nationwide, prison systems have operated from a male-centric vantage point, given that the overwhelming majority of the incarcerated are men. A study by Johns Hopkins researchers last year exposed the poor medical care pregnant women receive while behind bars in U.S. prisons. We get that logistically it is more complicated to establish programs for women because there are fewer of them. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be, and shouldn’t be done; just open smaller facilities. Women need a fair shot at succeeding outside of prison just as much as men do.

There are no more excuses for prison systems to ignore women or lump them in with men, especially now, when, sadly, women make up more of the prison population than they once did. From 1999 to 2009 the number of adult women in prison grew by 25%. While reforms have reduced the total number of people in state prisons since 2009, almost all of the decrease has been among men, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

And once released many of them will end up back in prison. Nationally, 77% of female state prisoners released in 2005 across 30 states were arrested at least once during the 9 years after their release, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Those who had been in jail for property or drug offenses, in particular, were more likely to be arrested again. Women are more often arrested for these lifestyle crimes than more violent offenses more common to men.

Giving these women the tools to deal with the circumstances that landed them in prison in the first place, can also lower their chances of recidivism. Perhaps they won’t steal if they are better able to earn a decent wage to take care of their families. Or maybe they will be less likely to uses drugs if they get treatment for addiction and any underlying mental health issues.

Incarcerated women are usually mothers and most often the primary caretakers of their children. Prisons need to play a role in helping to set these women up to take care of their families once released. They will need jobs, housing and mental health services.

The Hogan administration took a tiny step forward in the announcement of more services to women once the Brockbridge Correctional facility is up and running later this year. We are glad the administration seems to at least understand the problem. The facility will focus on job training, education and family mediation — all areas that will help inmates transition to life outside of prison. The state’s labor department is expected to help train inmates for jobs with the biggest demand.

The state needs to go even further and pass legislation pending in this year’s General Assembly that would require a pre-release center dedicated to women. The need is urgent amid a movement across the country to shrink prison populations. About 5,000 people were released from the Maryland correctional system last year and the state needs to prevent as many of them as possible from ever returning — including the women.

Women’s equality should exist as much inside the prison walls as it does out.

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