By Alexis Taylor
Catherine Pugh has lived many lives.
The former Maryland State Senator and Baltimore City Councilwoman turned Mayor has always had many stories to tell, and these days she has a lot more to say.
In an hour-long sit down with the AFRO American Newspapers, Pugh talked about her faith, her vision for Baltimore and the Black community and yes- even her time as an inmate in the bowels of Alabama’s prison system.
“Anybody can fall, but everybody can get up,” Pugh said. “It’s how you get up. At the same time, it’s
] who helps you along the way.”
Though Pugh wouldn’t discuss the case, documents from the DOJ lay the story out in detail.
On Nov. 20, 2019 the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the unsealing of an 11-count indictment for Pugh on “federal charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, seven counts of wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and two counts of tax evasion.”
At the center of the scandal were four editions of the Health Holly books Pugh authored and sold to the University of Maryland while sitting on their board of directors. Thousands of books were supposed to be donated to Baltimore City Public Schools. Instead, thousands were resold to other organizations for profit and many more were stashed at various locations and never delivered.
Justice came swift for Pugh.
One day after her indictment was announced, she pled guilty to “federal charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and two counts of tax evasion.”
A sentencing hearing was scheduled for Feb. 27, 2020 and there were no delays.
As scheduled, Pugh was sentenced.
According to information released from the DOJ, Pugh’s punishment was set to be “three years in federal prison, followed by three years of supervised release.”
U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow gave Pugh a restitution order to pay $411,948 and made her also “forfeit $669,688 including property on Ellamont Road in Baltimore and $17,800 from the Committee to Re-elect Catherine Pugh.”
In her mind, the words of her father kept replaying in her head. “I didn’t ‘dot every ‘I’ and I didn’t ‘cross every ‘T,’” she said, recalling his instructions for being a leader.
In the end she would negotiate a deal to keep her home- but she was definitely going to prison.
At 70 years old, with the world at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Pugh surrendered to federal custody on June 26, 2020. She was sent to the Federal Correctional Institution in Aliceville, Alabama.
“I cried the first seven days because I was actually put into the special housing unit (SHU). The SHU was for people who had discipline issues,” said Pugh, who thought she would quarantine and then immediately go to “camp,” a part of the prison with work assignments and less restriction.
Instead she and about six others were on lockdown for weeks. After being released from the SHU, Pugh said she was moved “behind the wall” to the prison side of the correctional facility. There was little relief there.
“We didn’t go outside,” said Pugh, recalling the days she couldn’t see the light of day. “The first time we went out might have been September. We would go out for one hour- one hour a week.”
In fact, Pugh would not make it to “camp” until March of 2021.
Once there, she hit the ground running. The former dean and director of Strayer Business College (now Strayer University) became a prison cook, serving up pancakes with bananas or special treats when possible. But work was done each morning by 11am.
On the less restrictive side of the facility, she was able to move until evening. She began doing what she could to help the women alongside her who were set to spend years – even decades- of their lives behind bars.
“At three o’ clock every day I would say ‘anyone who wants help with the GED- I’ll be in the beauty room!’” said Pugh.
The 71-year old realized she could still play piano- something she hadn’t done since she was a child. “I ended up teaching piano because I remembered enough to instruct a beginners’ class.”
In turn, she finally learned how to play spades.
During her time in prison, Pugh says she came across all walks of life.
“On the prison side you had everything- murderers, rapists- all kinds of poeple,” said Pugh. “But we also met a lot of people who wanted to get better.”
“A lot of women who are there because of their need to have more money for their children,” she said, adding that many others were incarcerated because they got “caught up with someone trying to do better for themselves.”
Pugh paused when asked if she is a better leader and advocate for the re-entry population, now that she has served time behind bars herself.
“I sat up many a night with women who were afraid to leave because they didn’t have places to go – afraid to leave because they still couldn’t take care of their children,” she said. “They knew where their meals were coming from and they knew they had a place to sleep.”
“How do you reinvent and reimagine incarceration so that when people leave they are prepared to be constructive members of society?” she quipped. “I think we can do better than what we’re doing- just like we can do better for the people out here- we can do better for the people in there. Whether it is a trade or education or opportunities.”
Pugh said she relied on God, her strong family bond and close friends while in prison. Letters from her supporters also got her through.
“There was a brother that used to write to me all the time. He said ‘you are still a queen- don’t you ever forget it!’ He said ‘you will rise again. God did not put you there for you to sleep on this experience. Grab hold and move forward!’”
These days, that’s exactly what Cathy Pugh is doing.
“I think I’m wiser,” she said. “This is another experience in the life of Catherine Pugh- I’ve had so many and in many ways I feel like I’ve been blessed by them.”
She will step in as interim host of former Sen. Larry Young’s morning show on WOLB 1010 AM, and already has topics like Baltimore’s Black economy and digital equity at the top of her list.
“Economically, we still are not where we’re supposed to be,” Pugh said. “In many ways we’re headed in the right direction. We certainly have more people in business than what we’ve had, but I don’t know if we have the kind of economic power we would need to bridge the gap economically, socially or otherwise in the city.”
Pugh said “we call ourselves minorities but if you look that up in the dictionary, ‘minority’ means ‘a small piece of.’ We are the majority of the population in the city but we certainly don’t control majority of the wealth in this city,” Pugh said. “It means we have not bridged those gaps to the extent that we need to bridge those gaps. We’re not creating or pushing along enough of the Black businesses in our City to help create the jobs and opportunities that we need to.”
Pugh returned home on Jan. 25, 2022, roughly three months after a prison official knocked on her door and said it was time to go.
She made her first public appearance at the 2022 AFRO High Tea in Baltimore at Martin’s West to a warm reception.
At 72-years old, it seems like it will take more than a scandal to stop Pugh- and she has one thing to say to her detractors:
“You can talk about me- you can do whatever you want. But you can’t take God’s gifts that were given to me away from me.”