Maryland corrections officials plan to convert a Jessup facility into a center dedicated to preparing inmates to return home, but advocates say incarcerated women still won’t have the same access to services as men.
The state wants to turn the Brockbridge Correctional Facility into a “comprehensive pre-release, re-entry, and workforce development facility” for both men and women. Corrections leaders say it will offer programs to get people on the right track as they leave prison, with a focus on job training, education and family mediation.
“It represents the next step of going home,” said Secretary Robert Green of the state’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
But the plan doesn’t satisfy those who have been lobbying for several years for the state to open a prerelease center solely for female inmates. They say women haven’t had opportunities equal to those for men in terms of job training, housing referrals and other services to help them succeed after release.
“This is a gender discrimination issue," said Monica Cooper, the executive director of the Maryland Justice Project, which advocates for formerly incarcerated people.
The efforts come as various levels of government work to shrink the prison population and focus more on helping people transition back to the community once they’re out. Last year, 5,000 people left Maryland prisons, according to state officials.
Both state officials and advocates say reentry services help reduce the likelihood that people will commit new crimes because they are better equipped to find jobs and cope with life outside of prison.
Over the past several years, some lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to make the state establish a separate prerelease center for women.
The Brockbridge plan "is a clear indication that the governor [Republican Gov. Larry Hogan] is hearing us and he hears the calls of the lawmakers,” said Nicole Hanson-Mundell, who heads the Baltimore-based advocacy group Out for Justice. But, she said, “this is not good enough.”
Advocates held a news conference Tuesday in the House of Delegates building to push for passage of the three pieces of legislation that would require the state to operate a stand-alone prerelease center for women that would provide “trauma informed prerelease services.”
“They deserve to be able to get real mental health treatment. They deserve adequate drug treatment," Hanson-Mundell said. “As it stands, they are not getting that.”
State Sen. Mary Washington, a Baltimore Democrat, is the lead sponsor of the Senate legislation.
“It just seems like an afterthought to lump women into this facility,” said Washington, a candidate for mayor, of the Brockbridge plan. “It’s important to have gender-specific programming and facilities."
The Brockbridge building, once a minimum-security facility for men, has been empty since November, and the plan is to convert it to a reentry center by the end of this year, Green said. He said it will house “hundreds" of inmates.
Green, a former head of corrections for Montgomery County who established a reentry unit there, said helping inmates transition back to the community is a high priority for the state. He said women’s programming is already “robust” and will be enhanced at the new location.
Inmates on prerelease status are within 18 months of release and classified as minimum security. They may participate in work-release and other programs in the community. The center will partner with the state’s labor department to help inmates train for high-demand jobs, officials said.
Living spaces will be separate for men and women, but inmates will participate in coed programming under staff supervision, they said.
The state closed a Baltimore prerelease unit for female inmates a decade ago to save money. Today it operates five prerelease centers for men, according to corrections officials. The women’s prerelease unit is run out of the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, which is the only state-run prison for women.
Hanson-Mundell said this creates friction as women on minimum-security status are housed alongside those on maximum-security. And she said there are limited job opportunities in the Jessup area.
As in other states, women in Maryland are imprisoned at far lower rates than men. According to the most recent state data available, women make up just over 4% percent of roughly 18,000 total inmates.
In other states, too, women have complained of fewer services due to their smaller numbers, said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a senior research analyst for the Sentencing Project, which advocates for sentencing reform.
“It’s much easier to rapidly fill a program when you have it in a men’s prison than when you have it in a women’s prison,” she said.
Nationally, the decline in the female prison population has been slower than that of men, she said: The male prison population fell 8% between 2010 — its peak — and 2017. The female prison population fell 1% between its peak in 2008 and 2017.
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The majority of female inmates are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, such as drug and property crimes, said Ghandnoosh, adding that “when women are incarcerated, it’s especially likely to impact children because they tend to be the caretakers.”
Cooper and Hanson-Mundell said women need their own space and questioned how the state would ensure the safety of female inmates and visiting children in a coed facility.
High-quality services could help reduce crime eventually by making it less likely people will reoffend, Cooper said.
“The governor can best help Baltimore and the entire state of Maryland by getting more to the root causes of recidivism and the root causes of crime,” Cooper said. "One way that he can do that is to ensure that women have a separate prerelease center to help address their gender-specific needs.”
Washington, the state senator, said she appreciates the state’s focus on reentry, but “we have to fully invest in the right services" for women.
“I’m glad they’re paying attention, but this isn’t the answer," she said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.