Maryland Justice Project founder Monica Cooper created the organization to champion solutions to issues of economic justice hindering formerly incarcerated people.
She knows firsthand the struggles those individuals face in earning a living and building a prosperous future for themselves and their families once their sentence is served.
After a series of what she describes as “poor decisions,” Cooper served a decade at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. But while Cooper lost her freedom for 10 years, formerly incarcerated people in Maryland gained a dedicated advocate — and Baltimore a new leader.
She spoke with The Daily Record as part of a series of interviews aimed at continuing the conversations started during the newspaper’s “Young, Black, Homegrown and Leading in Baltimore” webinar. The interview below has been edited for clarity and space.
The Daily Record: Your advocacy work focuses on helping returning citizens once they are done serving their sentence, but in terms of helping people not go through that experience in the first place, what one thing could Baltimore to help people stay off that track?
Monica Cooper: You will always hear the saying ‘invest in our youth’ — that goes without saying — because if you make that investment they won’t be fed into the criminal justice system, because the criminal justice system throughout the country seems to be a growing hungry monster, and the more it grows the more you need to feed it.
The more we allow it to be privatized by Corrections Corporation of America (now known as CoreCivic) and by all of these people, who if it wasn’t for shame it would be traded on a stock market … it helps to create this whole idea that the monster continues to grow. His appetite for money is growing. So we have to feed people into this machine.
So that’s one way that we can cut it out, but in terms of breaking that cycle — and it’s such a large question — I do believe that we have to work with our children.
One way we can do it is providing great schools. … Making education cool again will definitely turn the tide.
TDR: Tell me a little bit about some of the resistance you face (in Annapolis) achieving those goals.
Cooper: Most of the resistance that we get usually comes from the Chamber of Commerce, usually comes from legislators who call themselves fiscally conservative. Usually from the lack of priority with the funds that we have in the state.
Now there are people willing to fund a new transportation system, people willing to fund new highways, new roads, and stuff like that. But I think the biggest push back usually comes when legislative services put a high fiscal note on a (bill creating a) capital project.
For instance, we were successful in passing — I think it’s Senate Bill 684 — which would require the Department of Corrections to open a women’s transitional center. The (legislative) services people put a $93 million price tag on it, which is baloney. And we just could never figure it out.
I guess what happens is that the department gives them those figures. So, quite naturally, the Department of Corrections don’t want to build this. They don’t want to put any energy into this.
They say, ‘Yep, it’s going to cost a trillion dollars.’ Not true. So our job is to say, ‘Hey, that’s not what it would cost.’
Unfortunately right now you can get any type of drug you want in prison. You can get (cocaine) you can get … Suboxone strips, you can get that right now inside the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. It doesn’t help the people who are there.
The job of the correctional staff and the people who run the prison is to do two things:
One is to keep the people who are inside safe.
The second thing is to keep society and the public safe from them getting out. That’s really the major role (of prison) is to keep people inside, and keep the people inside from getting outside.
Hence you have the bars, you have the guards to make sure that they stay inside, but also to keep the women safe.
They need to provide quality drug treatment services. They need to stop the flow of drugs to the prison — and because they have been locked down under COVID for about nine months — any drugs that’s in there, it didn’t come from inmates.
There’s no way (the Division of Corrections) can justify it. But they don’t report these things, but we have folks that we talked to on the inside, and I think it is just sad that women are in there and they’re still able to use drugs when that’s the time when they should be clean, and they should be getting those services they need.
But again, if you are a woman of 30-something, 40-something years old and you’ve had an uncle or friend of the family that’s been molesting you since she was 7 until age of 14, you need help. You need help. So the pushback fiscally it’s just kind of shameful … and it’s discriminatory.
TDR: How comfortable are you with someone putting the label (of leader) on you, and what does that mean to you?
Cooper: It’s a serious responsibility. For folk to look at me as a leader. … I believe, and I say it often, that we were all born to be in the service of others.
So for me to get up every day and serve my community, and serve other human beings, that’s why I’m here. So it’s easy for me. I do it 24/7.
The other thing is that when you are genuine about your efforts, you are not looking for accolades. You’re not looking for monetary gain, you are not looking for attention or anything like that.
You just get up and you naturally serve. There’s so many other people like myself.
There’s people right now in Sandtown that still get up every Saturday and sweep the gutter. There’s still people who walk down the street and they do cleanups in a community. There’s still people who just get up, and just naturally want to add to their community.
The other thing that I do say often is that when I transition I want Peter and Gabriel to be at the gate, and I want the trumpets to sound, and I just want God to be pleased with me. That is the selfish reason why I do it.
Now outside of that, I do the work, and I do what I do genuinely from my heart without looking for anything in return. The only thing that I’m looking for is a place in heaven. That’s it.