Helping Women ‘Move Forward’

By Prince George’s County Circuit Judge Cathy Hollenberg Serrette

When women leave prison, they face difficult challenges as they try to return to their homes and communities. How can we help?

Helping Women 'Move Forward'This past October, the second annual Women Moving Forward Reentry Conference was held at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCIW) in Jessup. The participants were 160 women inmates who were scheduled to be released within the year. They attended the conference to learn about resources and information that can help them successfully reintegrate into their communities.

Initiated by the National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ), the conference was organized by a coalition of organizations including the Maryland Women’s Bar Association, the Maryland Women’s Commission, the National Women’s Prison Project, and Alternative Directions.

Dynamic keynote speaker Angela T. Jackson opened the event. Jackson is an author and behavioral health specialist with LIGHT Health and Wellness Comprehensive Services. She is also a former inmate. The day-long event included workshops on affordable housing, financial management, drug and mental health resources, education, employment preparation, family reunification and access to health care. Everyone enjoyed a lunchtime business wear fashion show followed by an extensive resource fair.

Women within 90 days of release were provided the opportunity to interview with potential employers. All gained interview experience and several secured employment. The closing workshop, “Walking in My Shoes,” featured a panel of women who had formerly been incarcerated who shared inspirational testimonies and answered questions about their struggles and success after incarceration.

Judges Sue-Ellen Hantman, Ellen Heller, Theresa Nolan, Irma Raker, Julia Weatherly and I served on the organizing committee, which was co-chaired by U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Gauvey and Carolyn Mattingly, immediate past chair of the Maryland Commission on Women. Robin Waley served as the conference coordinator.

The Women Moving Forward conference is modeled after Alaska’s Success Inside and Out program, which was started by Alaska Chief Justice Dana Fabe, the current president of National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ).

Judge Cathy Hollenberg Serrette
Judge Cathy Hollenberg Serrette

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Chief Judge Brenda Murray and I co-chaired Maryland’s first conference in 2008. We took last year’s conference a step further this year with resource packages prepared for each attendee based upon the jurisdiction to which she will be returning, a resource fair, and actual, rather than mock, job interviews.

The conference was truly moving on several fronts. Most importantly, of course, was the provision of so many resources and so much information for the women to use upon release. The full-day program included all the accoutrements of any professional conference, including exceptional speakers, conference bags, t-shirts, and non-institutionalized food, all of which relayed a message of respect and demonstrated that there are resources available, a community of people eager to support the women inside and out, and role models who have traveled similarly difficult paths who have reunited with their families, succeeded financially, secured education, and established rewarding lives.

Research has shown that incarcerated women often have physical and mental conditions, family responsibilities, and histories of abuse and non-violent criminal activity that distinguish them from male prisoners. Studies have also shown that concern for children has been a prime motivator for successful rehabilitation for many women. The successful return of women to their communities serves not only the individual women, but their children, families and communities, as well. The conference hopefully helped the participants tackle the often substantial barriers facing them upon release for the benefit and safety of the community and the well-being of all of its residents.

Anyone interested in participating on the organizing committee for next year’s conference should contact me at chserrette@co.pg.md.us.

Justice in Action

The National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ) has been particularly active in Maryland in issues pertaining to women in prisons and girls in detention.

For example, Judge Marielsa Bernard (Montgomery County Circuit Court) runs the Story Book program through which incarcerated mothers read to their children and the recordings and books are sent to the children; Judge Marcella Holland (Baltimore City Circuit Court) is active in Baltimore’s Girl Scouts program for the children of incarcerated women; Judge Toni Clarke (Prince George’s County Circuit Court) initiated a joint effort between Department of Juvenile Services and University of Maryland School of Architecture to revamp the Waxter Children’s Center.

Members of NAWJ have been especially active in establishing housing and parenting programs for women offenders with children and were called on recently to help spread the word about programs available to combat Maryland’s growing infant mortality rate.