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Justice & Advocacy - an affiliate website of The Lehigh Conference of Churches

The Heart of Justice: Prison Life in Pennsylvania

Rev. Michael Comick, Chaplain at a prison in central Pennsylvania, led a workshop on “the life of prison inmates and family communications” at the Heart of Justice event in November 2013. This is a workshop report by Janet Ney.

Michael led us through a description of a day in the life of a prisoner incarcerated at the prison, a facility that was built to house 1,500 prisoners. Currently, this prison houses 2,300 prisoners, including 750 people serving life sentences. Among the prisoners are 120 young people, 21 years old or younger. Medical attention is provided by a staff nurse who may need to see 50 inmates in an hour.

One of Michael’s basic points was that prisons do not rehabilitate. The prison and its staff are concerned with the three C’s: custody, care, and control; helping prisoners to find new life so that they can re-enter the outside world and stay out of prison in the future is not part of the mandate of the prison.

Prisoners are expected to get their GED’s; if they don’t get it, they’re not allowed to move out of the prison. But the class sizes are limited; as a result, some prisoners are forced to stay beyond the length of their sentences while they wait for a chance to take the class. Prisoners who arrive with a GED don’t have to take any classes.

Some prisoners have jobs; they make anywhere from 20 cents to 42 cents per hour. Most of the prisoners come from Philadelphia, Allentown, Lancaster, and York. Family support and interaction is critical but travel time and expense keeps families away. Of the staff of 250, 7 are black or Hispanic. Many of the guards come from the area surrounding the prison; they have little or no understanding of the urban life in the backgrounds of most of the prisoners. Michael talked about the high risk prisoner whose life as a criminal defines him. If he gets out, he’ll be back. There are other prisoners who are middle risk who could be influenced to change but prison tends to confirm them in their current life styles/ understandings. And then, there are the young prisoners, those who are serving their first sentence, who need to be protected, if possible, from the influences of the prison. For them, there may be only two refuges to help them survive their time – gangs or religion.

Prisoners are eager for contact with the outside world. As noted, many of them do not have family visits on a regular basis. Any outreach to them is appreciated – a letter, phone call, visit. If congregations may want to start writing letters to prisoners, get in touch with the chaplain of the prison for guidance [or LCCC Justice & Advocacy can help get you started if you contact us:  justice @ ppjr.org ]. Michael emphasized that prisoners treasure any letters they receive, even those addressed to “To Whom It May Concern.”

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