(Photo/MD News Connection)

By Diane Bernard, Maryland News Connection

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The Maryland Justice Project and its partners are urging the General Assembly to override Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of a bill to provide what they say is a desperately needed pre-release program to help women transition out of prison.

Monica Cooper, the project’s executive director, said despite having more than 800 women in prison, the state has nine pre-release units for men, but none for women.

The state faces a budget shortfall because of COVID-19, but Cooper contended lawmakers recognize the urgency in helping women get jobs and housing after their release.

She is confident the override will pass, and noted the original bill was approved with a 104-to-27 vote.

“We already won this fight,” Cooper asserted. “We don’t have to redo this battle. The only thing we have to do is get those people to say ‘yes’ again. They said ‘yes’ before and we need them to say ‘yes’ again, and that’s it.”

Cooper noted her group spearheaded the Gender Responsive Pre-release Act in 2016.

Gov. Hogan cited COVID-19 budget constraints when he vetoed the bill in May. The General Assembly is expected to vote on an override this week.

The only women’s community pre-release center in Maryland closed about 10 years ago, to save money.

Since then, many women returning from prison with no family or friends to lean on face enormous barriers to finding work and a place to live.

Carlita Brown of Baltimore turned to a homeless shelter and said she needs the life skills a pre-release program would offer.

“If you have never cashed a check, if you have never paid a bill, you don’t have that kind of experience,” Brown explained. “So for, someone like myself, who has been incarcerated for 22 years from the age of 18, and you’re released, you’re ignorant, and you have to find your way.”

Malaika Cooks of Baltimore, who served an eight-year term in a Maryland state prison, agreed. She’s been unemployed since her release last year, which she attributes to the lack of pre-release job training.

“The men have all kinds of pre-release programs and things that help them for when they transition,” Cooks observed. “And the women, we have nothing, and I think that it’s really discriminatory. We don’t have anything, you know. It’s not fair.”

According to research, about 42% of moms in Maryland prisons are single-parent breadwinners, and more than 220 children in the state are in foster care because their mothers are incarcerated.