WASHINGTON – Going to prison is hard, but Alfreda “Frieda” Robinson used her arrogance to get by.
During her prison time, Robinson used that arrogance to demand access to little things like cranberry juice for women suffering with urinary tract infections.
But 18 years ago, Robinson was a Baltimore educator and high school guidance counselor with two master’s degrees in special education. She was working three jobs trying to support her only son, David, who she had at 15, and who needed treatment for ADHD and other behavioral issues.
The son ended up selling cocaine, and Robinson blames herself for putting them both in prison after she called a friend’s mother to try to help him out, and she became implicated in a conspiracy to sell drugs. Robinson was sentenced to jail for 10 years, and her then 21-year-old son to 45 years.
Robinson’s story is one example of what happens when Maryland’s complex and tough drug laws combine with its mandatory minimum sentencing laws — an overwhelmingly black prison population, serving time for drug offenses.
Over the last decade, the number of blacks in Maryland prisons has stayed static at about 75 percent of the corrections population. Currently, 35 percent of all Maryland prisoners are in jail for drug-related offenses, according to a Capital News Service analysis. In 2003, 90 percent of drug offender inmates were black, and today that number remains at 86 percent, according to Capital News Service analysis.
“We’ve been spending billions on drug-related issues now for 30 years, the so-called war on drugs, and no one who’s honest about it thinks it’s been successful and Maryland is a poster child for this,” said Gary LaFree, University of Maryland criminal justice expert. “You’d be amazed to see how many are in prison for drug-related offenses . . . it’s phenomenal.”
Maryland imposes mandatory minimum sentencing for handgun and drug distribution offenses. Distribution, possession with intent to distribute or manufacture of drugs is a felony, with penalties of up to five years in prison with repeat offenders facing a mandatory sentence of two years. For specific drugs like cocaine and heroin, the maximum prison cap is raised to 20 years, with a second offense carrying a mandatory minimum of 10 years.
“The problem is distinguishing between (minor) and the more major players who are distributing for profit,” said David Soule, executive director of the Maryland State Sentencing Policy Commission. “That is difficult to distinguish and it’s something that judges take into consideration if they can or have enough information to be able to do that.”
The state has made some attempts at reducing the disparity. In 2004, Maryland passed a bill designed to reduce the disparity in prisons through providing treatment and avoiding incarceration for drug offenders, but the gap remains large.
“All people of color are disproportionally affected but African-Americans are by far the most disproportionally treated by the criminal justice system in Maryland and, of course, across the country,” said Amanda Peterutti, researcher at the Justice Policy Institute.
The criminal justice policy group called The Sentencing Project, found in a study last year that blacks in the United States were imprisoned at rates more than five times that of whites.
Russell P. Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victim’s Resource Center and former Maryland State Sentencing Policy Commissioner, said he was unsure why the numbers showed that more blacks were in prison but that the commission would benefit from creating a model that separates those who are likely to benefit from treatment and those that aren’t.
“The numbers are the numbers and I don’t know what anybody can do about that,” Butler said. “I’m not confident to say that’s a problem and anything other than those are the numbers.”
Over the last 25 years, Maryland’s prison population has tripled, according to the Maryland Department of Corrections.
High prison rates come at a great financial cost to the state, especially for those who repeatedly return to the corrections system. Last year, the state spent about $1.4 billion in maintaining prisons.
The problem requires more solutions than imprisonment, said one judge.
“I see more African-Americans than I see any other race and it’s more complicated than you may suspect,” said Maryland District Court Judge Emmanuel Brown, who said about two-thirds of the cases he hears are drug-related. “I’m not of the opinion that we should do one thing as opposed to another. We have to work in concert with health care as well as the criminal justice system to try to arrest this problem.”
Many, like Brown, speculate there are many reasons why the disproportionate black population in prisons continues to trouble the state.
“Historically, it’s probably rooted in black history through the institution of slavery and the discrimination that followed,” LaFree said. “In some ways it’s sort of Sociology 101, things that strengthen the family, things that strengthen the economy, things that provide effective rehabilitation once people are in the criminal justice system, greater investment in kids in general, pretty much all of those things makes sense in eliminating the disparity.”
Many advocate a multi-pronged approach.
“States and counties have to make a commitment to do something about it — that involves training, that involves awareness, making public statements, cultural competency and de-incarceration, which is very difficult for some people to get their arms around,” Peterutti said.
In addition, the state doesn’t look at what does and doesn’t work in specific communities and isn’t experimental enough, LaFree said.
“There is certainly a subset of the incarceration population that can be handled through community supervision,” Soule said. “We’re incarcerating them at a cost that is pretty prohibitive and that really incarceration and focusing on those that pose the greatest public safety risk.”
Robinson knows the truth of that.
Robinson has made it her life’s mission to help prisoners in Maryland, and there is still much to do. Three years after her release, Robinson founded the National Women’s Prison Project, a 5-year-old, Baltimore-based organization that battles recidivism among women prisoners. In 2004, Robinson was named Baltimore City Paper’s “Best Activist.”
“The No. 1 priority for me would be to have a realistic viewpoint of the communities we live in — that means recognizing the breakdowns of so many systems,” Robinson said. “We’ve got to humanize people again by actually showing the realness of their situation. We’ve been too overzealous in imprisoning people.”