Out For Justice is Out For Change: Advocacy group boosts two bills aimed at helping women transition out of prison

When Jenette Hunt got out of jail in July, she didn’t know what she was going to do.

”When I was released I had no I.D., no birth certificate, and $50 and I was scared to death,” Hunt said.

A  stipulation of Hunt’s release was that she had to enter drug treatment. It wasn’t easy to find information on one, especially from behind bars. But if she didn’t get into treatment once she was out, she would go back to jail.

“I sat there worried that I was going to be homeless and end up right back in prison for violation,” Hunt said.

She told her story, haltingly, nervously, in Annapolis last month inside the House of Delegates as part of an event organized by Out For Justice, a Baltimore-based group that advocates for the needs of people who are incarcerated and formerly incarcerated.

Hunt is precisely the kind of person Out For Justice works for and with. And it is because of Hunt’s experience, and the experiences of many women like her, that the group is putting its energy this legislative session behind two bills urging state lawmakers to support pre-release centers for women.

Pre-release status is granted to people who are approaching their release date in jail, and are in good standing. Pre-release centers currently exist in Maryland, but only for men. Women remain in jail until they are released. Hunt went right from prison to being released and while she did eventually find a drug treatment center it was just a couple months before her release. All of it added more stress onto an already stressful transition.

“Currently in the state of Maryland there is no separate brick-and-mortar, state-run women’s pre-release center,” said Nicole Hanson-Mundell, executive director of Out For Justice tells supporters and lawmakers gathered at the hearing. “Women in the state of Maryland should be given the resources and the opportunity to transition back into society successfully.”

Maryland House Bill 710/Senate Bill 821 would make it so that women in pre-release go to a separate facility. This is important because sometimes, women on pre-release status are housed in the same unit as women housed on more serious charges, increasing risk and the chance for a violent encounter that may keep someone about to get out of jail inside.

Maryland House Bill 715/ Senate Bill 419 changes the language around existing Maryland law so that the state is explicitly required to provide pre-release housing for women rather than simply authorized to provide pre-releasing housing for women.

“We will no longer accept the state of Maryland to treat women coming home from prison as an afterthought,” Hanson-Mundell said. “We will no longer allow the state of Maryland to continue to ignore women coming home from prison or jail and we are demanding that the state invest the dollars that are needed for women to come home successfully.”

Spread around the room were posters with facts about incarcerated women such as “75% of incarcerated women are primary or sole caretakers of their children.”

Photo by Lisa Snowden-McCray

Hanson-Mundell started out with a career in politics, working for Mary Washington during her first campaign for delegate and Sen. Jill Carter when she was a delegate. Then in the early 2010s, she decided to go back to school which meant that her family dropped from two incomes to one.

She soon got desperate.

“I was like my mom, in the sense that she was a single mother who took care of everything, who held everything down,” Hanson-Mundell said over the phone a month after Out For Justice’s Annapolis presser. “I wasn’t willing to let the man be the man at the time. I had to bring my part of the bills home.”

She started doing what she calls “untraditional things” to make money, including stealing. She was eventually arrested and sentenced to one year for theft. Before her incarceration, she had advised people who had done time and told that if they worked hard enough, they could get their lives on track.

A criminal record of her own taught her it was easier said than done.

“Now I am the one with the felony and I know how people view me with this felony. Now I’m the one trying to find a job and can’t even though I’ve got some skill sets under my belt,” she said. “I just committed that I would be the voice for women who could not find their voice quite yet.”

That’s what brought her to Out for Justice in 2012. The group’s core staff includes Hanson-Mundell, two paid part-timers and six volunteers: “We like the saying in church, ‘We are small but we do big things in the Lord,’” she said.

Criminal justice reform, what Out For Justice has always been focused on, has become a hot topic over the past few years, often making strange bedfellows. President Donald Trump, even as he chants “lock her up” and praises dictators, signed the First Step Act, aimed at reducing federal prison sentences, last year. And Kim Kardashian campaigned for Alice Marie Johnson, who had been serving a life sentence for nonviolent, drug-related crime (her husband, Kanye West lobbied for the release of Gangster Disciples leader, Larry Hoover). Meanwhile, California senator and presidential candidate Kamala Harris has faced tough questions from about her role as a prosecutor, putting people—primarily young black men—in prisons. It is a moment where everyone is forced to seriously wrestle with the faults of harsh sentencing, the effects of mass incarceration, and the failed drug war.

Hanson-Mundell notes this has been Out For Justice’s focus long before it became a more mainstream conversation.

“When this organization started, re-entry wasn’t popular,” Hanson-Mundell said. “It wasn’t popular to organize formerly incarcerated people to go to Annapolis and change laws.”

The seeds of Out For Justice began in 2009 when activist Trina Seldon was released from prison. She wanted to get a fresh start in life but found that she couldn’t get a job and it inspired her to advocate for people in a her situation.

“I did everything that was required of me, even stayed past my expiration date in prison so I could get the certification in human services. I wanted to work with special needs kids,” Seldon said. “One of the requirements was that I had to find employment. I’m filling out all these job applications and I’m checking this box that’s asking me have I ever been convicted of crime and I found that even though I served my time, I did my probation, it was still hindering me from getting a good job.”

It was common practice to not admit to being convicted of a crime, work the 60 days or 90 days until a completed background came back because at least there was a brief period to earn some money for their family.

“Trina thought that was ridiculous,” Hanson said. “She was like hold up, hold up something’s not right. It’s the law, it’s the policies that are holding us up. That is how Out for Justice started.”

Seldon found other people who had similar experiences and formed a steering committee and soon, they were lobbying in Annapolis. They helped boost legislation that would prohibit employers from asking applicants about past prison time (“Ban The Box” as it was known) which passed May of 2013. They also targeted legislation making it easier for ex-offenders to get licenses to perform certain jobs. That steering committee evolved into what later officially became Out For Justice. Seldon stepped down in 2013 because of health reasons and Hanson-Mundell has been Out For Justice’s driving force since then.

Monica Brown, Executive Director of the Maryland Justice Project, another group that focuses on economic justice for ex-offenders, explains that it can be hard working in Annapolis, where lawmakers from other parts of Maryland tend to scapegoat Baltimore and its people. And that is on top of the stigma of incarceration in general.

“Lawmakers tend to see Baltimore as the problem child. They tend to see Baltimore as the place where people are mismanaging the funds for our schools, where we have leaders that are ineffective, and the residents of baltimore are bringing their drugs and bringing their problems to their county,” Brown said.

Brown praises Out For Justice for its perseverance and relationships with people in the system.

“One of the things that makes them so unique is that they have gained the trust of the people whose lives are tattered and torn,” Brown said. “You have some people who do nonprofit work who are just so far removed from the work that they can’t really connect to the people and the people aren’t trusting them and don’t believe them, and for good reason. Out for Justice is genuinely doing this work because somebody has to do it. Somebody has to be genuine about it.”

Photo by Brandon Soderberg

An Out For Justice t-shirt, often seen around Baltimore and on the backs of those involved in the organization over the years sums up the group’s philosophy:

“5 WAYS TO SUPPORT AN EX-OFFENDER

Listen to their story

Tell them your story—successes and failures

Don’t assume you know their struggle

Help them identify their skills and passions

TREAT THEM LIKE A HUMAN BEING”

The group always made it clear that formerly and currently incarcerated people must have power. That means ex-offenders decide what causes the group chooses to pursue, ex-offenders set the tone for how the group lobbies lawmakers, and so on.

In September, Out For Justice put a list of top priority issues out for members to vote on and the members voted to focus on women’s pre-release.

“Any piece of legislation that comes from Out for Justice, it’s always generated by someone’s direct experience with the issue,” Hanson-Mundell said.

Organizer PFK Boom works closely with Out For Justice. He has spoken about his incarceration in the ’90s tied to a murder charge of which he was ultimately found not guilty of, including time in solitary confinement and cites his experiences learning about and participating in the legislative process with Out for Justice as inspiration for cofounding his own group, 300 Gangstas, a burgeoning coalition of organizers and reformed gang members.

“What Out For Justice teaches you is the engagement practice, the education practice and the empowerment practice of the legislative practice,” Boom said.

It was easier for him to learn what he needed to know about organizing because he was learning from people whose experiences were like his, who as he put it, “come from ‘in the life,’ meaning people who have been returning citizens.”

Out for Justice holds meetings once a month in Baltimore. Anyone is invited, ex-offenders are made especially welcome. They have published a legislative agenda for this session. They are also planning a march for jobs and justice later on this month. Volunteers phone bank, write letters, contact lawmakers, and travel all over the state.

They have also had success doing community activities such as hosting all-night resource fairs and organizing transportation to the polls for ex-offenders. Out For Justice has been a frequent face at Baltimore Ceasefire events and for the very first Ceasefire in August 2017, the group spent one full night in East Baltimore and then the next night, in West Baltimore co-running a resource fair where residents got help with record expungements, information on mental health and child support. Among the collaborators that weekend was 300 Gangstas.

“We want to bring the resources to the community, not just during the day,” Hanson-Mundell said back then. “We’re bringing resources to these communities all night, civil and criminal attorneys on hand to offer their services.”

One of the group’s biggest wins came in 2015 when they led efforts to restore voting rights for the formerly incarcerated.

“We organized bodies and people to come to Annapolis and testify and make a lot of noise around voting rights for individuals with felony convictions because we believe that you cannot expect somebody to come home, change their life, work really hard, but they don’t have the ability to choose who they are voting for,”  Hanson-Mundell said. “It opened up the door for 40,000 or even more people who, no matter how many felonies they had, they would be eligible to vote. It was a real big deal.”

After it was initially vetoed by Governor Larry Hogan, legislation granting ex-offenders voting rights was finally passed into law in 2016.

Hanson-Mundell is quick to point out that while a lot of what they do is aimed at making life easier for people who have served their time, they do work for and with people who are still behind bars as well.

“We support our incarcerated citizens through grievances. We have women and men who call us on a regular basis talking about could we advocate for them because they are being treated unfairly, or they are being targeted by corrections officers, or they haven’t been down to see medical in six weeks and they feel like they have the flu,” she says.

It’s tireless, often thankless work. But Hanson-Mundell recognizes how important it is. That’s why it’s so important that the pre-release legislation gets passed.

“How can I deny a woman who just came home and she needs housing? I can’t say ‘Miss, I don’t provide direct services, you have to go somewhere else,’” she said. “I have to tap into my resources and find out who offers housing to newly released women with children. I have to use my connections and advocate for her.”

Additional reporting by Brandon Soderberg.