Pennsylvania Prison Society volunteer Gladys Hart knew an inmate needed medical attention when she first visited him because he had tears running down his face but was not crying.
Knowing it would take too long to place a request and wait for an appointment, Hart, of State College, went straight to the medical director and explained the situation. The inmate was seen right away, learned he was going blind and was able to get the help he needed.
Such is the work of the prison society, a group whose mission is “to advocate for a humane, just and restorative correctional system, and to promote a rational approach to criminal justice issues.”
Representatives of the society’s Centre, Huntingdon and Blair county chapters met Tuesday in State College to discuss recent issues pressing on the state’s prison populations.
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“I believe in collaboration,” Executive Director Ann Schwartzman said. “I believe in what you do on a local level in our county jails, working with officers and administrators, talking with inmates and families.”
The society was co-founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1787 as the Philadelphia Society for the Alleviation of Miseries of Public Prisons, she said. Over the centuries, the society has been credited for numerous accomplishments, including advocating for the separation of incarcerated men, women and children; coordinating efforts that led to the moratorium on private prisons; and producing the documentary “Life Sentence.”
These days, she said, the society provides inmate and issue advocacy, tackling issues such as education, prison conditions and sentencing.
One of the big buzzwords in the criminal justice system today is “re-entry,” Schwartzman said, which is simply getting out of prison and going home.
“Hopefully these individuals are getting a second chance, getting a job, having some skills to support a family and being a productive citizens,” she said. “But it doesn’t always work. When you have so many people coming out — 16,000 a year in Pennsylvania alone — there aren’t enough services provided.”
One of the more successful ideas that’s growing in popularity is “ban the box,” she said. On most job applications, there is a section asking if the applicant has ever been arrested or convicted. “Ban the box” simply strikes that language from the application.
“It doesn’t eliminate a background check or drug test,” Director of Volunteers John Hargreaves said. “But it offers those who have been incarcerated the opportunity to get their foot in the door. It’s a small gesture that speaks volumes.”
Centre County chapter co-convener Mark Frailey said the Centre County Correctional Facility is exceptional and ahead of the game compared with other counties. A coalition of the prison society, county judiciary, District Attorney’s Office, law enforcement and county commissioners meets once a month to discuss strategies for re-entry.
“Our county has all the programs,” he said, “and they’re quality programs. Everything from resume writing to drug and alcohol to parenting — I think our system is better than most.”
Hart said she visits inmates at the Centre County facility about once a month and hears all types of issues. Persistence is the key when helping an inmate get the help they need, she said.
“You can do so much good if you just listen to people,” she said.