Six person panel on prisons at Willistown Meeting tells it like it is – with compassion, hope and experience

Peace & Social Concerns

On Saturday, February 10th the Willistown Meeting hosted some fifty Friends and visitors for a panel discussion on the Pennsylvania Prison system.

Willistown’s clerk, Will Scull, and event organizer Derek Stedman welcomed two West Chester University professors, Michael Antonio and Sami Abdel-Salaam, along with four other presenters—Chrissy Nye, an ex-offender; Laura Taylor, (Gwynedd Meeting) an expert on the Quaker-led Alternatives to Violence Program (AVP) at Graterford prison; Nancy Stampahar, a community educator with the Chester County Domestic Violence Center; and Ryan Newswanger, CEO of the Mennonite Faith’s Jubilee Ministries.

Michael E. Antonio, a professor at West Chester University and a lead researcher for the Department of Corrections in PA, shared some sobering statistics about Pennsylvania’s prison community, describing a population of 48,438 people living in 26 PA prisons. He noted that the average inmate is 38 years old and 94% of inmates are male. 47% are black, 42% are white, and 11% are Hispanic.

He further noted that 27% of PA’s inmates will be in prison for 2- 5 years and 15.3% of the population is incarcerated due to parole violations.

29.1% have mental health issues, 8.6% of which are seriously incapacitating. 43% have addictions to alcohol.  82.5% of prisoners enter with no skills while 17.5% have some skills. Once released, it is expected that about 1/3 of former prisoners come to Philadelphia to try to remake their lives.

Although the US prison population has shrunk by 14% (to 6.75 million) since peaking at 7.3 million, this is still triple the 2 million prisoners the US held back in 1980.

Mike’s West Chester University colleague, Dr. Sami Abdel-Salam, then offered an alternative vision for prisons. He cited the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons’ fact that “What happens inside prisons does not stay there – it comes home with prisoners after they are released.” This led him to study the Halden Prison in Norway, a minimum security prison that takes a humanistic approach to incarceration, one that is rooted in the reality that a lack of freedom is the most potent punishment.

Halden adheres to the Nelson Mandela rules that mandate one prisoner per cell, physical and moral integrity, and a safe environment.  Halden further embodies the normality principle, where inmates are not cut off from the way life is lived outside prison. They have private bathrooms and private cells that look like bedrooms, and they share community, kitchen, and living space that looks like a home. A high level of interaction with correctional officers is fostered, and unbarred windows let in lots of natural light. Halden’s purpose is dual – the safety of society and the rehabilitation of the prisoner. Data shows that Halden is effective. While 65% of US prisoners are reincarcerated in three years, Norway’s rate of reincarceration is much lower, just 20%.

Christine Nye shared personal reflections on her 3½ month-long incarceration and ultimate release (with an ankle monitor). There were two to three people per cell, and everything you needed like soap, pens, and paper had to be bought. It was stressful, full of hunger and hardship, and sometimes scary: “(prison) meals leave you starving; you never know who is who; and due to having a criminal record it’s hard to get a job afterwards. It’s a long journey (back) and I still have a way to go…”

Laura Taylor spoke to that long journey and described how the Alternatives to Violence program reaches out to some 3300 prisoners at Graterford Prison, Montgomery County. She said that Graterford “has a good volunteer program, and Villanova University offers classes there, so prisoners have the means to become barbers, plumbers, mechanics, and leave with larger skill sets.” Since AVP is a voluntary program, it conflicts with the 17 cents per hour prison jobs inmates need to buy essentials like soap and paper. “To do AVP you reduce your available time for work,” but even so the AVP creed—that a life lived with dignity and self-respect is the birthright of every person—draws prisoners into the voluntary program.

Nancy Stampahar added insight into sources of trauma that can underpin people’s decisions to commit crimes. About 3000 people come through the Chester County Domestic Violence Center each year. They arrive seeking knowledge on how to survive violence and they leave with tools and strategies that help them escape cycles of abuse. She shared sobering local statistics that supported her message that domestic violence is not a rare occurrence: 1/3 of women and 1/7 of all men are victims of domestic violence and abuse, with a further 1/3 of all teenagers also impacted.

The program concluded with Ryan Newswanger’s presentation on ex-offender programming the Mennonite Church has launched, and detailed lessons learned in overcoming false assumptions about the largely white male populations they serve.

People who enter Jubilee Ministries are facing immediate hardships after prison – no food, shelter, and clothing. They need jobs, but many don’t have the skills to keep the jobs they get. One could assume that everyone coming out of prison wants to change, and knows how to read and write, interview, and punch a time clock. But they don’t. They also lack money management and budgeting skills, with few strategies for saving. Jubilee Ministries teaches ex-offenders about checks and balancing checkbooks, workplace etiquette, and relationship skill sets. Although they initially assumed that after the difficulties of living in prison, new homes would be safe havens, Jubilee volunteers soon learned that ‘old drug friends return’, and new homes can become drug houses. In the end, Ryan said, Jubliee realized they must start by asking whether a person really wants to change. Some ex-offenders don’t show that they have the strength to turn things around, but for those who do, a profoundly spiritual change of heart is often part of the process.

The program wrapped up with a Q&A session, and a reminder that funding for the talk was provided by a generous bequest from Willistown member Anne Evans, who died at the age of 105 in 2010. For more information about criminal justice education at Westchester University, contact Danah Allen, Communications and Impact Coordinator, at 610-436-2055.

Willistown Meeting 
7069 Goshen Rd., Newtown Square, PA 19073.
Worship is from 10:00-11:00 AM on Sundays