Female inmates' message: Don't join us behind bars 2 prisoners develop public service spots aimed at women

November 24, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

During the past four years at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, Cindy McKay and Cynthia L. Smith have seen women file in by the hundreds, and watched their families breaking up in the wake.

Now McKay and Smith are sending a message to women from behind bars: Don't join us here.

In the prison laundry room where they spent many a Sunday washing clothes, the two friends came up with ideas for a series of public-service announcements that would show women how to avoid ruining their lives.

The first, a message about domestic violence, has aired on a local television station, and several other stations have expressed interest.

"There had to be something positive out of being away," McKay said last week in an interview at the Baltimore Pre-Release Unit for Women, where she is serving a 15-year sentence for felony theft. "The recidivism rate for women is so high. You see drugs, prostitution, theft, and 18- and 19-year-old girls [convicted of] murder."

They know whereof they speak. McKay, 39, stole money from a store on the Eastern Shore where she was a manager to make the back payments on her house. It was her second theft conviction, and she left a husband and eight children behind.

Smith, 30, shot her husband, Prince George's County police Cpl. Thomas Smith, during an argument while their 2-month-old son slept nearby. She was sentenced to 25 years for second-degree murder and a handgun violation.

Smith said the July 15, 1990, killing resulted from domestic abuse that caused her to fear for her life. She was not allowed to use evidence of that abuse at her trial, she said. Prosecutors charged that Smith fired on her husband out of anger, not fear.

In the first public-service announcement, called "Last Night," several male characters played by correctional officers are seen exercising together in a gym. One asks the others what they did the night before. One of them has to think a minute. As pictures of his battered wife -- played by McKay -- flash on screen, he answers: "Last night? Nothing new."

An announcer says, "He won't talk about it, but you should," and encourages batterers and victims to contact the House of Ruth.

Smith said she never had the courage to leave her husband. "I want to tell women to leave. You need to leave. I wish there was someone I could talk to at the time. If I could take back every minute of July 15, I would," she said.

Every week, Smith said, she draws her son, Kyle, a picture from prison of the things they never have been able to do together.

Several other scripts the women have submitted to the Maryland Division of Correction deal with child abuse and shoplifting. ("The costs are hidden," the announcement would warn, while showing a woman about to steal a leather jacket). The women also are interested in creating a spot about the horror of mothers killing their children.

"We appreciate the fact that the inmates use their time positively, in a way that could benefit the citizens and themselves," said Maxine Eldridge, spokeswoman for the corrections unit. She said the division may be able to film more skits by Smith and McKay, but probably not until next year.

Meanwhile, McKay and Smith have more plans.

Their dream is to start a company called ETC -- End the Cycle -- that would help women in prison rebuild their lives. The two are seeking churches interested in providing housing in the Baltimore area so women from other parts of the state can qualify for home detention, which operates only in certain areas.

"I really just want my future to be much better than my past," McKay said. "I want to prove myself. There's a real need here."

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