Female inmates lose group Discussions aided battered women

October 21, 1992|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff Writer Staff writer David Simon contributed to this article.

A support group for battered women at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women has been banned from meeting at the jail by the prison's warden, who says the group failed to follow prison regulations.

The discussion group for women inmates who killed or attempted to kill their abusers had met weekly at the jail since 1989. Called Unity, the group sought to provide a setting in which battered women could share their experiences with others who had lived through similar traumas.

Former members of the group include about half of the 12 women who were approved for parole or whose murder or assault convictions were commuted last year by Gov. William Donald Schaefer because they said they were victims of battered spouse syndrome. They say they couldn't have survived prison without the group.

"It's almost impossible to talk about what you've been through, it's something you try to forget every hour of your life," said Gale A. Hawkins, an original group member who served 11 years of a life sentence for killing her abusive boyfriend.

"The group helped you channel your feelings and allowed you to talk to people who had walked in your footsteps," said Ms. Hawkins, who was released from prison in July 1991 after Mr. Schaefer recommended that she be paroled.

Warden Melanie Pereira would neither specify which prison regulation Unity violated nor comment on her decision to ban the group, said J. Scott McCauley, a spokesman for the state Division of Correction.

According to Mr. McCauley, Ms. Pereira did say that Unity's refusal to meet with prison staff over a problem that had arisen in the group was a factor in her decision to ban the group meetings.

The group's founder, Angela Lee of Eldersburg, says the loss of the program is going to be hard on its members.

For the past six years, Mrs. Lee has run an advocacy group for battered women and their children. The group has volunteers in several counties throughout the state.

"All battered women, until they have an opportunity to be with others in a group scenario, are inclined to think there's something unique about their situation," said Mrs. Lee. "The group gives them a feeling of identity with fellow victims."

Former inmate Joyce Steiner, who served 11 months of a five-year sentence for killing her abusive husband, says that many inmates rely on the Unity group to deal with their painful memories.

"It was a place where once a week you could speak out and talk to somebody who could relate to abuse," said Ms. Steiner, one of eight women whose prison sentences were commuted by the governor in February 1991. "I know that some of the girls we left behind really need to talk."

Warden Pereira halted the group's discussions in late July, saying she wouldn't reinstate the group until volunteer counselors met with her. But Mrs. Lee refused the meeting because the warden placed conditions on which counselors could attend. "It was not a matter of refusing to meet with her but drawing the ultimate conclusion that nothing positive was to be gained from such a meeting," Mrs. Lee said.

The friction between Unity and the prison administration began last summer when the group's members unanimously voted to expel a member who the group believed had broken its confidentiality rule.

The group alleged that Cynthia Smith had related personal information discussed in meetings to the general inmate population. In addition, Unity members contend that Smith was compiling a file on the cases of fellow group members, Mrs. Lee said.

Smith, 27, is serving a 25-year sentence for the 1990 fatal shooting of her husband, a Prince George's County policeman.

Following the group's expulsion of Smith, Ms. Pereira determined that Smith had not betrayed the confidentiality of the group, based on the warden's conversations with other inmates. She ordered the group to take Smith back if she wished to return. Ms. Pereira also ordered that a prison staff member attend all future meetings, Mrs. Lee said.

The support group has previously expelled two members for breaching the confidentiality rule without intervention from prison officials, Mrs. Lee said.

Following a July 29 Unity meeting that Smith attended, Ms. Pereira said the group could not meet again until group counselors met with her to explain why Smith was not made to feel welcome in the group.

Mrs. Lee said it is unusual for a warden to take "such a protective stance" toward one inmate.

Patricia Terrangi, who was the warden at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women when Unity first began meeting at the prison, said that many inmates benefited from the group.

Ms. Terrangi, currently a warden at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarrett, Va., said she thought that the group would be useful because many female inmates have been victims of abuse.

"I felt it would help them to develop coping skills to recognize problem relationships at an early stage and learn they weren't by themselves," Ms. Terrangi said. "I think the group helped to provide that."

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