Gale Hawkins has been in jail for murder since 1979, when she stabbed her live-in boyfriend 22 times with a pair of scissors. He had beaten her repeatedly, the last time nearly into unconsciousness. Now she lives in the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, in Jessup.

"A lot of the women who come in here don't understand why we smile," she said. "They don't understand that when we come to jail we find freedom."

By "we" she meant the other women sitting around the Formica-topped conference table, most of whom are in jail (they like to say "incarcerated") for killing abusive husbands or fathers or boyfriends: The platinum blond grandmother set her husband on fire 13 years ago; the slender woman with the paralyzed arm hired someone to shoot her husband; the well-spoken former police officer discharged her service revolver into her husband's head.

Hawkins did not mean they wanted to be in prison. She meant that compared with living with a man who made her stay home alone, cut off contact with her friends and family, and slammed her against the wall when she did something he didn't like, being in prison was liberating. "You can do your hair however you like, or do your nails, and you know at the end of the evening no one is going to beat you up," the former hairdresser said cheerily.

The women gathered Wednesday night for their weekly support group meeting, organized by Unity, a volunteer advocacy group for battered women from "the outside." Their guest speaker was Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.), whose work on behalf of battered women gave her a special interest in this group, a number of whom said during the evening that they represent to other victims of abuse both a warning and hope. The warning: A woman now in an abusive relationship who doesn't seek help but decides to solve her problems with a gun or a can of gasoline could end up in prison. The hope: One's self-esteem is recoverable, no matter how great the damage.

"I feel good about myself," said Carolyn Wallace, who shot the man she now refers to as "my late husband" six times in front of her two children. "I want other women to know that."

An air of suppressed hysteria hangs over almost any gathering of jailed women meeting with sympathetic emissaries from the outside world. There is so much they want to tell you, so much you will never understand. This conference room was sweetly decorated with greens and a tree decked with twinkly white lights; a bookshelf held two volumes of Reader's Digest condensed books and a copy of "War and Remembrance." There was an air of civility and decorum, of hair having been freshly groomed and makeup applied. Morella brought a gift box of chocolates.

The women arrived one by one, a number of them late because of the difficulty in getting a guard to escort them, some newly angered by a recent slight or frustration. Before the representative and the warden arrived, one woman spoke of a fight between two of her roommates the night before; one roommate had clawed the other's face bloody with her fingernails.

Another early arrival spoke about the tension of living with someone who plays loud music all day; the smokers and the nonsmokers joust for rights, and the active and the somnolent coexist uncomfortably. Some are angry because they have been told that all crochet yarn will be confiscated in two days (no one is entirely sure why). None of them is allowed to chew gum because she might jam a lock with it.

Some have faces that look worn and tough; a few seem untouched by the misery they recite. Two women say nothing. One stares ahead fixedly, as though mesmerized by a scratch on the tabletop; the other, an inmate only nine months, listens with interest but remains silent. All of them were screened by the warden before being allowed to join the group to assure that each has medical or psychiatric records documenting her abuse.

No one said she was glad to have killed her abuser -- an impolitic admission, even if true, in front of officialdom. They know that other people don't understand why they accepted beatings and humiliation, why they didn't just leave. It's hard for them to understand that themselves.

"We never say it is right to kill our spouse," said Mytokia Friend, the former Baltimore City Police officer. "It is important for us in here to express how it was and how we have gone through everything from A to Z, while other women still have time left to escape."

"I used to watch my mother get beat up by my father," said Hawkins, a bright, blunt woman in a red sweater and gold earrings. "I remember going over to my mother's and she would have a black eye, I would have a black eye, and my sister would have a black eye. Nobody thought anything of it. That was all I ever knew," she told Morella.

Hawkins has been placed on "pre-release status," which should allow her to live in a penal halfway house en route to being paroled. But, according to Angela Lee, one of the Unity Volunteers, there is no room in any of the pre-release centers, so Hawkins stays in prison, getting out occasionally for a speaking engagement with Unity.

They've all told their stories before, many times. But they don't seem to mind telling them again, as though the process of exorcism is cruelly endless.

"I met my boyfriend when I got out of the Job Corps," Hawkins said. "When he asked me to quit my job and {said} he would take care of me I was bragging to my sisters! I was only 20 years old when I met him; I had no other experience with men. Then he started beating me and I thought that was the way things were. And then the police would come and nobody would pay attention as long as I could walk away. When there was a body everybody listened... . When they took me to jail I didn't even know I should show them my bruises. I was trying to hide them."

Of abusive men, she said: "When you meet them you think you've got Prince Charming on a white horse. Then you get home and find out it's Freddie Krueger."

Linda Glazier has been incarcerated half of her 34 years. She said she was first molested by one of her mother's boyfriends -- "and there was a new one every week" -- when she was 4. Later she was placed in a foster home and then when she was adopted by another Eastern Shore family, she said, her adoptive father beat her and assaulted her sexually when she was 12.

"I was lucky," she said. "I never loved them. They had authority over me, but I had been through so much that I didn't love them. So it wasn't like having someone you looked up to attack you."

When Glazier was 16, she told her boyfriend what had happened to her. He killed her adoptive parents. Like her boyfriend, she is serving two life sentences for first degree murder. "Never say you wish someone was dead," she said wryly. "You could end up with premeditated."

Her efforts to appeal for a reduction in her sentence have foundered because she can't find a lawyer who will work for free. And the only money she has is what she can earn from selling crocheted Christmas trees and by sewing in the prison shop. She makes Maryland state flags.

Glazier is angry but she said she is not bitter. She has earned a BA in business administration and would like to be a bookkeeper.

There are two issues she wants to bring to Morella's attention. One is the connection between child abuse and adult abuse. She cites a survey that found more than 90 percent of the women in the correctional institution had been abused in one way or another as children; among the women who were battered as adults the figure is probably higher. "No one listens to the child," she said. "When I tried to tell what happened to me, they said I enticed him. And I was 12 and he was 55."

The other point is disparities in sentencing. The women whose crimes were committed in the 1960s and 1970s, like Glazier, are more likely to have been prohibited from offering testimony about their abuse and more likely to have received life sentences.

"There was a woman here who did something very similar to what I did," said the pixieish grandmother who'd set her husband on fire. In deference to her family, she asked not to be identified by her name, but rather as "Brandy." "She got 10 {years} and was out in three. I'm here 13 and no end in sight. They come in now -- two years for homicide."

Brandy is serving a life sentence. According to a 1978 story about the case, she threw a bottle of gasoline at her husband during one of their frequent arguments. She said the gas was ignited by a spark from a nearby window fan that was malfunctioning. The prosecutor said she set the fire deliberately.

Bernadette Barnes, who worked for the state of Maryland for 17 years, recounted how her husband shot her in the head while she was sleeping, leaving her with a limp and a paralyzed arm. He was sentenced to three months in jail for that, she said. A few years afterward she paid a man $5,000 to kill her husband. The contract was carried out, she was arrested, convicted and sentenced to 40 years. "It was okay for him to do that to me. I got 40 years," said Barnes, a slight, pretty woman who has three children. "He felt I was his private property ... She {the judge} didn't even look at what he done to me."

Some of the women asked Morella for advice. Carolyn Wallace is worried about her 12-year-old son, who lives with her sister in Florida. He seems to be going through a rebellious stage, she said. She understands why he would be angry: "After all, I took his father away from him," but she doesn't know how to talk to him about it.

In the end, it seemed the needs were great but the solutions difficult to achieve. Morella agreed with the women's pleas: More "safe houses" are needed for battered women and their children to go to. Judges need to allow evidence of abuse to be admitted by the defense. Judges need to be educated and sensitized. Something needs to be done about "those restraining orders. They aren't worth the paper they're on," as one woman said. Women and children who are being beaten need to know that life doesn't have to be like that; men who abuse them need to be punished, and taught another way.

But perhaps the most important need was voiced by Mytokia Friend, when Morella asked, what was it they wanted?

"To be believed," Friend said simply.