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"No Help Here": Behind the Walls of Work Release at Maryland's Prison For Women

Updated: Apr 13, 2023

Like many of us, Elizabeth Starnes-Hord woke up at 5:00 a.m. to get dressed and go to work. But unlike many of us, “I report to one of the work release officers so that my clothing, accessories, and any items can be documented. Then I am strip searched,” Elizabeth wrote in July 2018. Thus began another day for a woman in the work-release program at Maryland Correctional Institution for Women.

Hope Turns Into Discouragement

Elizabeth had been imprisoned for eleven years, and her sentence was finally coming to an end in 2018. As her release date approached, Elizabeth was transferred to the work release program at Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCI-W). She was grateful to have a job during her time in the program. This was her opportunity to save up for a place to live after she was released. Elizabeth was also ready for the work release program to prepare her for life outside of prison, which is what MCI-W told her it would do. She had been behind bars for eleven years and the world was a lot different now. She needed help finding a place to live, a job, transportation, and everything else a person needs to survive.

But the program was nothing like that. Elizabeth got no support whatsoever to prepare her for life after release, despite writing multiple letters to the Transition Coordinator pleading for help. She never got a response. And when Elizabeth received her first paycheck, her heart sank. Instead of getting the money she had earned - for waking up at the crack of dawn, enduring multiple strip searches a day, constantly waiting to be picked up by the prison van, and not being permitted to return to her housing unit for hours after her shift ended - the state was garnishing 33% of Elizabeth’s paycheck for “room and board.” On top of that, the state deducted additional funds to maintain the minimum balance required by the state in her inmate account.

A picture of Elizabeth’s paycheck statement, showing Room & Board fees deducted by MCI-W.
Elizabeth’s paycheck statement, showing Room & Board fees deducted by MCI-W.

It turns out Elizabeth wasn’t the only one struggling. The more she talked to other women in the work-release program, the more she realized they were all going through the same thing. She went on to write, “I felt like I was the only person who was struggling to find a place to rent…until I began talking to other women on work release. I would say that currently, about 70% of the work-release women need help finding housing. No help here though.”

The Fight For Equitable Pre-Release

Stories like Elizabeth’s were all too familiar to the Women’s Prerelease Coalition, co-led by Out For Justice. The coalition had been advocating for years to require the state of Maryland to operate a standalone pre-release center that provides robust and gender-responsive reentry services. Although the state operates multiple centers for men, there is not one pre-release center in the entire state of Maryland for women. So when women get released, they have little to no support for jobs, education, housing, healthcare, mental health, and family reunification. As a result, many women live in poverty, become perpetually reliant on social services, and are more likely to recidivate after their transition home. Their children, who have already been traumatized by their mothers’ incarceration and absence, also suffer the consequences.

Out For Justice recognized the importance of uplifting the lived experience and input of our members in the fight to pass a women’s pre-release equity law in the Maryland General Assembly. In 2018, they started collecting and documenting the experiences of women at MCI-W who were preparing to be released, to demonstrate that the publicly-reported services provided by MCI-W directly contradicted what was actually happening. The women who spoke out put an incriminating spotlight on the lack of programming, disregard for the safety of inmates, barriers to getting jobs, and inattention to the needs of the incarcerated women at MCI-W.

A portion of Elizabeth’s letter to Out For Justice.

These stories, including Elizabeth’s, became part of the relentless advocacy of Out For Justice and the Women’s Prerelease Coalition that ultimately led to The Gender-Responsive Pre-release Act getting passed in 2020.

When Elizabeth was released, she struggled to adapt to life outside of prison. The work release program had taught her nothing. She left prison thinking she had to search for job listings in the newspaper and with no idea what Google was. She had to figure it out on her own. Although Elizabeth is doing much better now, working a job she loves and living in her own home, she suffers from mental health issues as a result of her incarceration. To add fuel to the fire, she was never paid for her last month of work in the pre-release program because the state claimed she had an unpaid debt.

As of the writing of this post in February 2023, nothing has changed for the women at MCI-W or the other Maryland facilities. Despite the law requiring a women’s pre-release center being passed in 2020, the state has not taken steps to fund it. In 2021, the Women’s Pre-Release Coalition got lawmakers to agree to restrict $150,000 in FY23 operating funds and pre-approve $2 million in FY24 capital funds for the center. However, a budget request has still not been made by lawmakers.

You Can Help Women Like Elizabeth

Out For Justice, our partners and advocates are relentlessly continuing the fight. As Elizabeth says, “I would do anything to help residents further their release.” Elizabeth’s story is not unique. Here is how you can help women who like Elizabeth feel unsupported in their transition.

Out For Justice and our partners need your help in holding the state accountable for funding the pre-release center to support women like Elizabeth as they return to their communities. Email to learn about how you can support upcoming hearings in the Maryland General Assembly.

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