Lobbying on behalf of state prisoners Seeking change: One woman aids 'jail babies,' investing much of her time as an advocate for prison reform.

February 13, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Dressed in her Sunday best, Nancy Moran is ready to hop the light rail by 12:15, then the bus, to be in a legislative hearing room in Annapolis by 3 p.m. There she'll try to sell a stack of bills for clients who don't vote, are locked up and are about the least popular folks on the planet.

Most if not all of Ms. Moran's bills on behalf of state prisoners may die of neglect in a committee file drawer. In a time of getting tougher on criminals, their passing will not be mourned by many.

But this is what Nancy Moran does and who she is -- the prisoners' lobbyist.

Not the usual kind of lobbyist. She pays for just about all the mailing and materials herself and spends most of her time at it, getting by on part-time computer work for a bank, temporary work and a little family money. She has no car. At 41, she has no children, save for the men and women she calls "jail babies."

"She's kind of like a monk," said Frank M. Dunbaugh, an attorney who has worked with Ms. Moran on prison reform. "If you took Nancy Moran away, it would probably have a greater effect than taking away parole in terms of spirits of the lifers in the prisons."

She is a small woman with long brown hair and intense eyes, her words rushing out to fill any available space. She smokes often and sits rarely.

The former Baltimore City Jail library employee works both for people behind bars and those who have been released.

"Jail babies have problems," she says. "They can't afford a winter coat. They wear as many shirts as they can. They have an extreme amount of faith in the lottery.

+ "Jail babies disappear. For

months at a time. You just learn. They do bad things, apparently. I wish to hell to caution them to stay out of trouble. You can't put a leash on them."

A photo on her bookshelf, of a smiling man who made it out of prison, is inscribed "To Nancy my friend, with love."

"This one has absconded," she said, pointing to the picture, "with somebody's car."

The mail she gets from prisoners is a living, moving thing in its way, taking up too much space in a Bolton Hill studio apartment.

It comes in about six to eight letters a week, in just about every form imaginable: Orderly typing on 8 1/2 -by-11-inch sheets. Crumpled papers with wild handwriting, strange blends of legalese and raw emotion.

She translates the problems described into frequent letters to correctional officials, who have mixed reactions to her.

Arnold Hopkins, a former commissioner of the state Division of Correction, remembers Ms. Moran as "a very well-intentioned, well-versed individual in the field of corrections."

"Sometimes she doesn't leave much room for compromise on the things she believes in," Mr. Hopkins said. "But I think she was getting, in a number of cases, pretty good information from the inside out about what was going on."

Not everyone in corrections views Ms. Moran so charitably. Prisoners Aid Association Inc., for which she has volunteered for the past 11 years, told her recently she could no longer use their name in her work. "There have been a number of problems," said Robert Clinkscale, president of the association's board. "There are a lot of issues that go back a long way." But he would not elaborate.

"I'll keep doing this anyway," Ms. Moran says of that controversy. "You can fight fire with paper."

Born in Queens, N.Y., she spent her early years on Long Island, then moved with her parents and three younger sisters to Newark, N.Y., an upstate farming town. They moved to Baltimore in 1971.

Ms. Moran majored in natural sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, "where I hated the whole experience," she says, wrinkling her forehead. "It was, I figured out, a dysfunctional bureaucracy."

She joined the staff of the Baltimore City Jail library in 1980. She was laid off after five months, but kept going back as a temporary worker, then as a volunteer. And she underwent a transformation.

"When I was in the Baltimore City Jail for about six weeks, I lost all fear of murder and all fear of rape. Because they killed each other. They killed people they know. But I was terrified of going into a 7-Eleven or a Wawa, because of the robberies. That is what I acquired in City Jail."

"She just opened our eyes to legal rights and issues that were to our advantage," said Jeff Johnson of Baltimore, a former prisoner. "She made us see things that we never would have seen normally. You won't find anybody else like Nancy Moran in this world."

The 1984 murder of correctional Officer Herman L. Toulson Jr. in the Maryland Penitentiary threw Ms. Moran into activism, she said. Recriminations against inmates followed the death. She joined protests outside the prison.

She was one of several prison-reform advocates who took allegations of beatings and conditions at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, the state's "supermaximum-security" prison, to the U.S. Department of Justice. That prompted an investigation last year and changes followed.

This legislative session, she is lobbying for the creation of a commission to study how to keep inmates from committing crimes.

She doesn't have many illusions about bringing forth broad changes. And she can't afford to get attached to many prisoners.

Little things tell her that. For example, sometimes her letters are returned with "RELEASED" scrawled across the front. Sometimes that means what it sounds like. Sometimes it doesn't.

She looked at one such letter, paused and turned away, shrugging.

"That means he died."

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