A Humanitarian Effort
By Jesse Duthrie
Founded in 2001 by Jacqueline Robarge, Power Inside is a non-profit agency in Baltimore, Maryland that works to help women impacted by incarceration, street life, and abuse. Jacqueline oversees street-based community health outreach; group and individual interventions with incarcerated women; daytime drop-in resources; and research, public education and advocacy to expand community-wide access to health and treatment services.
Duthrie: What is Power Inside?
Robarge: Power Inside is a ten-year-old non-profit program that I started to primarily serve the needs of women coming from jail. We have a special focus on pretrial detainees. We provide case management, drop in services, group counseling, and street outreach.
Duthrie: What is group counseling?
Robarge: We have a weekly group called “Women’s Rap,” where women can drop in and talk about any issues that are a barrier to their safety or their reentry. They share peer support. They exchange resources. Sometimes we have speakers come in to talk about health issues, or barriers like criminal backgrounds and finding jobs.
Duthrie: What are the major issues that these women are facing outside prison?
Robarge: Many of these women are survivors of gender-based violence: sexual abuse, domestic violence, and sexual assault. The trauma that the women have suffered often creates symptoms of PTSD. They self medicate with drugs and alcohol. They also have relationship patterns that lead them back into the life that they were experiencing before they got into jail. So if their boyfriend was drug using or drug dealing and that’s how they became incarcerated. Without support, they might go back into that type of relationship and have a difficult time resisting all that comes with it.
Housing is a huge barrier. Affordable housing for people coming home from jail is difficult. We asked women if they had housing upon release and almost half of them said they do not have stable housing beyond thirty days after jail. Imagine if we extended that to six months? It would be an even higher percentage of homeless women.
We have a lot of women who are back home but the condition is not emotionally safe. A lot of the houses are overcrowded and it’s not a good environment for the woman returning home. We have a lot of these types of issues in Baltimore.
Duthrie: What are the issues that women are facing with their kids? How are you targeting these issues?
Robarge: Sometimes when they return home they may be able to reunite with their kids, but there aren’t enough programs to help with these unifications. For a woman to get her child back she would need safe housing to be approved. That’s a major issue.
We also have trouble providing enough support for the moms, including parenting classes and income generation and counseling for the kids to help the family function well together. When that’s done, the family and the kids can be much more successful.
We had a woman who was incarcerated for 10 years because she protected herself in a domestic violence case. She was separated from her children and when she came home the kids wanted to be with her again. They were in foster care. There were very few resources to help the family reunite. The children started running away and acting out in foster care only to get back with their mother. The childcare system didn’t recognize there was an existing bond, even though she was incarcerated for a long time. It doesn’t change there’s a bond between the mother and child even when the kid is in care. We make this paternal assumption that the kids are better off in foster care, but that isn’t always true. Just because the kid is in foster care doesn’t mean the kid is any safer. We need to stop judging incarcerated women as unable parents when they come home. Many times they are capable when they are reunited with their kids.
Duthrie: Do you have a specific example when you were faced with a challenge and your services were able to help reunite women with her children?
Robarge: We had a woman who was incarcerated in jail for pretrial for quite a long time while she resolved minor drug and prostitution charges. We worked with that woman the entire time she was in jail. We also reached out to her family and her relatives.
Every time the woman went to court, we were there. We helped the public defenders office consolidate all of her charges. When we took her history and assessment in jail, we were able to document all of her trauma and drug history so we could take that to court. When we went into court, we prepared a long report on what she needed and the information about her child. Ultimately, we got her a drug treatment slot. We picked her up from court, brought her to the drug treatment, and arranged all her paperwork. The client was in drug treatment and was anxious about getting her kid back. We helped her focus on her treatment and reuniting her with her child. After about 9 months the child was brought to the treatment program and they were reunited.
This woman is back with her child. She works and lives in her own apartment. Her child goes to school. She gets regular medical care. She’s also getting her GED. We’re helping her all along the way. It’s been years of support, but the payoff is what can be done down the road.
Duthrie: What motivates you to do this work?
Robarge: I started in Baltimore working with women involved with prostitution. Seeing these women getting repeatedly arrested wasn’t serving them any good and wasn’t changing anything. I felt there needed to be a project that focused on all the intersecting issues. Where do women go? I always called the jail “The place where every oppressed group go.”
I have a sense about social justice and human rights. I feel we’re using incarceration to solve problems that require public health interventions or another social alternative altogether. So we try to help people before they get locked up. The women who are sleeping on the pavement tonight might end up sleeping in a cell tomorrow.
When we look at the people who end up in jail, I see people. They have flaws, but they are humans. I think that if you can look at that it’s reason enough. To me it’s a humanitarian effort.