Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative Phase II Conference — Ron Kipling Williams

Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative Phase II Conference — Ron Kipling Williams

The Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative (MRJI) and the Morgan State University Department of Social Work held the Phase II Family and Friends Conference at the Murphy Fine Arts Center on Saturday, September 20th.

The purpose of the all-day conference, which included speakers and workshops, was to present legislative and policy ideas, register new voters and conduct voter initiatives, and develop a support database for family members and supporters of incarcerated persons to prepare for the upcoming 2009 Legislative Session.

MRJI’s first event, Phase I, convened representatives from the state’s executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, as well as local and national policy organizations, family members, friends, and advocates. The mission of MJRI is to advocate for and advance humane and prudent criminal justice and sentencing policies for long-term incarcerated persons in Maryland’s prisons. “As we continue to build the public will we can exert political will,” said Kimberly Haven, Executive Director of Justice Maryland.

Issues that were discussed during the Phase II event ranged from disparities in drug sentencing laws and guidelines to the inordinate and unfair terms of incarceration. The most discussed polices were those enacted in 1995 by Governor Parris Glendening, who coined the term “life means life” (the governor said he would declare any person serving a life sentence ineligible for executive clemency unless they were critically ill or near-death).

“In the 1970s and late 1980s, Maryland had some of the most progressive prison policies,” said Walter Mandela Lomax, MRJI Director. “Since 1995 they are no longer available.” Consequently, work release persons were returned to minimum security and parole was eliminated, which has been devastating to inmates and the surrounding community. “Many have become assets, not liabilities,” said Lomax. As a result, the prison industrial complex has been lucrative for private industry. “Prisons have become big business,” said John R. Hargrove, Jr., who was appointed Associate Judge for the District Court of Maryland in 1998 by Glendening.

Although cultivating a prison industrial complex has become politically expedient, it has been socially damaging. “Prisons have become a system of punishment, revenge and ignorance,” said former Maryland State Delegate Clarence “Tiger” Davis. Perhaps the most unmeasured cost of unjustly treated incarcerated persons is to the community at large.

“We are extremely concerned about children and families, particularly of incarcerated persons,” said Dr. Anna R. McPhatter, Department of Social Work Chair and Professor at Morgan. According to McPhatter, in spite of Glendening’s policies certain judges have reduced life sentences. Still, the policy has had a crippling effect. “The greatest waste you can have is human waste,” said Hargrove.

Lomax, who spent nearly 40 years in prison, displayed resolve at the conference. “Today is a new day,” he declared. “We will not wait for change.”

Ron Kipling Williams is a political/social performance artist, media activist, member of Indypendent Reader Editorial Group and the Radical Artist Movement (RAM).