A little more than two years ago, Roxanne E. Umphery went to a community meeting where she heard the stories of women who were in prison, delivering their babies while in shackles.
“That put a pit in my stomach like you wouldn’t believe,” Umphery says.
Always one to commit to a cause and advocate for the underserved, Umphery, a professional grantwriter, had been involved in volunteerism efforts most of her life.
But hearing about Maryland’s prisoners—pregnant women, juveniles, and people serving extremely long sentences—sparked a new passion in her.
Working with the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative (MRJI), Umphery will use her fellowship to establish Powerful Peers, which will help connect volunteers and advocates who want to help returning individuals successfully transition back to the community.
MRJI has a long list of volunteers, Umphery says. She herself has been volunteering with the organization for the last two years. But until now, there has been no one able to harness the capacity of all the volunteers, train them in advocacy skills and connect them to real, meaningful tasks.
As legislative coordinator of Powerful Peers, Umphery will now take that on full-time.
For example, some volunteers might want to help the cause from home. They can help by updating MRJI’s resource directory, which is outdated, Umphery says. Other volunteers who want to be more hands-on will be trained to work directly with people returning from prison, helping them get set up with email or connected to social services.
“These are things the returning prisoners’ lawyers or social workers don’t have time to do, but they don’t require a degree in social work or a law degree to do,” Umphery says.
Still others might help the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services with a large-scale survey it is developing. The survey is being designed to understand the effectiveness of programs provided inside Maryland’s prisons by learning how or if returning individuals are benefitting from the skills they acquired before their release.
Umphery will help develop the survey, as well as train volunteers to interview people returning from prison.
Organizing in this way, Umphery will be able to utilize 100 to 125 volunteers who are willing to work.
Yet another aspect of Umphery’s work will be to train those volunteers who want to make a difference in Annapolis.
“Powerful Peers will train those individuals in the language of the legislative systems, the process and protocols of the General Assembly and bill-passing procedures,” says Umphery, who has been a legislative aide to two elected officials. “It’s not official lobbying. It’s just learning how to be prepared to talk informally to the governor at a function or give educational testimony on a bill to a committee. This kind of thing is so empowering to people who want to help make a difference.”
Most importantly, the work will help to improve services for those who are in prison and those who are returning, she says.
“I’ve never served any time in prison and I don’t have anyone in my family who is in prison, but I could,” Umphery says. “I could be in the system, and if so, I would want somebody like me on the outside advocating for me.”