At about 10:30 on a frigid night in February 2005, two women— one (white) in her late 30s, the other (African American) in her early 20s— were sitting in a booth in a largely deserted McDonald’s at North Avenue and Charles Street, glumly sipping coffee. The younger woman was Keiaira Jones. Released only hours before from the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCIW) in Jessup, MD, having served time for armed robbery, she now found herself in the outside world with no place to sleep or eat, no job and no skills to get one, no money, no family, and no clothes other than the well-worn ones on her back. The older woman was Jacqueline Robarge, the director of Power Inside, an agency committed to providing life’s necessities to vulnerable women in Baltimore City like Keiaira. Robarge’s occupation and preoccupation were to give these women another chance, and the daunting task of helping Keiaira began that evening. Both women were well aware that soon they would have to leave the warmth and safety of that McDonald’s and face the night—and an uncertain dawn.
Keiaira Jones was born out of wedlock in the Lafayette Projects, the fourth child of a drug-addicted mother who, Keiaira recalls wistfully, “had not worked a day in a lifetime.” She never knew her father, who died when she was 3 months old. “He went to a dance and danced with the wrong girl,” she mused. “Got shot. He was 17.”
Keiaira herself has lived at so many addresses she has trouble recalling them all. As she and her mother and siblings moved around, she attended six different schools and eventually dropped out in her junior year at Lake Clifton. To help pay expenses for a mother dying of AIDS, Keiaira hit the streets: Drugs, the use and sale of them, and armed robberies followed. A wayward and tangled life finally caught up with her and she found herself in Jessup’s Correctional Institution. She was 17 and serving out a 17-year sentence.
While in prison the word was out: Some lady named “Miss Jacqui” had a program designed to help incarcerated women get back on track. Her program led to education; job training; and food, clothing, and shelter. In 2002, while inside the prison walls, Keiaira contacted Ms. Jacqui.
And so it was on that cold night in February some eight years ago that Keiaira was released from MCIW, and Jacqui Robarge met her at the gate in her own car and drove her to the McDonald’s on North Avenue. And where, sipping coffee, Jacqueline Robarge would figure out the next step in Keiaira’s return to society.
Power Inside (PI) was founded in May 2001 by Jacqueline Robarge as an all-volunteer program offering women’s empowerment groups at the Baltimore City Detention Center. Over the past 10 years, PI has increased its infrastructure and expanded its services to include the following: street-based community health outreach, group and individual interventions with incarcerated women, daytime drop-in resources, research, public education, and advocacy to expand communitywide access to health treatment resources. In FY 2010, PI served 259 clients through 1,804 client encounters. Of these women, 45 were placed in housing and shelter, and three were placed in permanent housing. Another 31 women were placed in drug treatment, 33 were referred to health care, and 30 were referred for mental health treatment. In addition, 175 women reduced or terminated involvement in prostitution, 36 women demonstrated a reduction in drug use, and 23 women experienced increased access to health care. The cost to serve each client in the program is on average $1,000.
Power Inside operates a jail outreach program, starting with a support group inside the jail or prison and continuing with support upon release, including case management and other services as necessary. In its street outreach, Power Inside uses trauma-informed care, and works to build a relationship with women in the community by providing crisis intervention and assistance. In addition, PI provides a drop-in center, which is open from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. The drop-in center staff assists clients in obtaining identification, food, bus tokens, clothing, toiletries, and shelter, and in getting other immediate referrals. Power Inside currently receives funding for its services through the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, Baltimore City Offices of Human Services, The Abell Foundation, the Zanvyl and Isabelle Krieger Fund, and the Baltimore Community Foundation.
Keiaira reflects on her life: “Through the bad times and before I met Miss Jacqui, I would see my situation as hopeless, I would break down and cry. But Miss Jacqui, when she came into my life, always comforted me, and made me feel, for the first time in my entire life, that someone was paying attention to me, someone really cared about what I am doing, and where I was at any time. Until I met Miss Jacqui, nobody cared about me; I never really had a family—now Miss Jacqui is my family. She is seeing to it that I am someone! She helped me get my ID, and my GED, and helps me with my letter writing, computer services, my legal issues. She cares about me! I have never called her for help and not gotten it!
“So after years of people shutting doors in my face, I saw some of those doors begin to open for me, putting me on the path to a better life. I was so down I was ready to hit the streets again. No more.
“Now, now I have a place to live. I have possibilities for a job. I have a few dollars in my pocket. Since I began my relationship with Miss Jacqui, my life is 200 percent better! I can honestly say I am now more content than I have ever been in my life. At long last, I have prospects!”
Abell Salutes Jacqueline Robarge, director of Power Inside, for becoming family to incarcerated and abused women, and walking with them on the long journey from tears to prospects.