Crime, Punishment and Women

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From left: Nicole Hanson, Kimberly Haven and moderator Diamonte Brown discuss issues facing incarcerated women and female ex-offenders at Chizuk Amuno Congregation. (Photo by Erica Rimlinger)

Among the many disparities between incarcerated men and women are the job offerings. And this gap has repercussions that can last well beyond one’s time served.

“In Jessup, women can only access jobs like fast food within the Jessup vicinity,” said Nicole Hanson, executive director of ex-offender advocacy group Out for Justice. “Men, with nine different facilities across the state, can have access to workforce development programs that [train them for] green careers, construction, tech jobs. We’re not preparing women for the current job market because they don’t have access to these prerelease programs.”


At Chizuk Amuno Congregation on March 14, Hanson and Kimberly Haven, a prisoners’ rights advocate, both of whom have spent time behind bars, shared their experiences with the criminal justice system and life after incarceration. The event was sponsored by Interfaith Action for Human Rights, Chizuk Amuno’s social justice advocacy committee; Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Justice Group; Jews United for Justice — Baltimore; and the Baltimore Jewish Council.

Haven and Hanson advocate to improve conditions for women in prison and pass such legislation in Maryland.

While they are far outnumbered by their male counterparts, the number of imprisoned women has increased 14-fold since 1970, while the general jail population has seen a fivefold increase, according to Out for Justice, the Maryland Justice Project and the ACLU of Maryland. Eighty percent of women in prison are mothers, and each year 2,000 women give birth in prison.

Haven told the group that access to feminine hygiene products is a major issue for female prisoners. She shared the story of how she developed toxic shock syndrome from using improvised tampons and was forced to have a hysterectomy as a result.

When the JT asked Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger for comment on the disparities in a phone interview, Shellenberger said, “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to try to create laws to balance things out, but you have to remember that the difference in proportions of men to women in the Department of Corrections [is] astronomical.”

Haven said the state’s re-entry program for inmates is plagued by missed opportunities.

“The day of your conviction is the day you should be talking about re-entry,” Haven said. “We don’t teach women to open a bank account. We don’t teach the importance of having a bank account. How do you create a budget? How do you apply for food stamps?”

“The day you leave, there should be an envelope that says: ‘Call this 800 number for food stamps and you can eat tonight,’” she added. “The number of women who can’t eat is staggering.”

A lack of accountability in the correctional system masks the true extent of the problem, Haven noted.

“Everything happens in the dark, and we are just starting to kick open the door and let in some light,” she said.

Hanson and Haven encouraged participants to support Maryland House Bill 786, which limits the amount of time most prisoners can be held in restrictive housing, or solitary confinement, to 15 consecutive days and 90 days each year. Solitary confinement isolates prisoners from human contact for 22 to 24 hours a day.

According to Haven, solitary confinement can be assigned for any reason a guard sees fit and is implemented “if you tick off the wrong person” or as punishment for perceived disrespect. Even the accusation of an infraction can result in solitary confinement. She proposed alternative methods to modify behavior, such as the removal of privileges.

(Photo by Erica Rimlinger)

The panelists discussed a few crime-related bills that have been introduced in Maryland’s 2018 legislative session, including the Comprehensive Crime Bill of 2018, SB 122, sponsored by state Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair Bobby Zirkin, a Chizuk Amuno congregant. The bill passed the state Senate last week and now heads to the House for a judiciary hearing on March 27.

The bill increases the punishments for a number of criminal offenses related to court testimony, intimidating jurors and guns. For a second offense, the punishment for the use of a handgun in a crime increases from a five-year mandatory minimum to a 10-year mandatory minimum, the last five years of which offer parole eligibility. It also doubles the maximum time for that offense.

Molly Amster, JUFJ’s Baltimore director, said her organization and its partners are concerned about SB 122 because of some its “tough-on-crime policies, which disproportionately impact communities of color.”

“While there are certainly some smart-on-crime policies included in the bill, it’s not a trade-off that is worth the negative impact the bill becoming law would have,” she said.

In lieu of comment, a spokeswoman for Zirkin sent press releases about the bill and arranged a phone interview with Shellenberger, who was part of the task force to create the legislation.

Amster also expressed concerns about that task force.

“While elements of the bill did have open hearings, the construction of the complete bill language was done behind closed doors with an unknown group of people,” Amster said. “Advocates for criminal justice reform were not in the room, and requests for the list of who was have been denied.” She said the list was requested from a senator of the judicial proceeding committee, but would not identify which legislator.

Proponents of the bill include the Greater Baltimore Committee, Gov. Larry Hogan and Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh.

The idea for the Women Incarcerated event was conceived by Rabbi Charles Feinberg, executive director of IAHR.

“We wanted to bring a program about criminal justice issues into the Jewish community,” he said. “Often, the Jewish community doesn’t see this as directly relevant to their needs. On the other hand, it’s a … powerful, moral issue for our society, and I believe we’re all responsible for each other.”

Andrew Miller is a member of Chizuk Amuno’s social justice advocacy committee.

“The obligation to pursue justice is a core message that we hear about during Pesach, which is also why JUFJ organizes its Social Justice Seder every year before Pesach. Those who remember a history of oppression have a special obligation to work against it,” he said. “We have to work with our elected officials to make sure injustice and violation of basic human and constitutional rights are not being perpetrated in our names.”

Miller acknowledges that the committee doesn’t speak for the whole synagogue. “But we look to partner with those who share these concerns in other communities … to act as participants within a broader coalition.”

Haven says the issues are important, in part, because of their prevalence.

“One in three American adults has had experience with the criminal justice system,” she said. “The stigma that someone with a criminal justice record lives under is staggering. No matter what you do, you can never get away from your past. It drives you into the ground like a tent peg under an oak tree. No matter what you do, no matter where you go, if someone knows you have a criminal record, you know they’re looking side-eyed at you. It never goes away.”

Managing editor Marc Shapiro contributed to this report.

Erica Rimlinger is local freelancer writer.

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