By Steven Gordon
Now released see blog about post release experiences : (address coming)
PO Box A
Cresson, PA 16699-0001
I wrote a sincere letter to the warden of my county prison. I wrote that I doubted that he had ever received a letter like this and in the first paragraph I wrote that I wanted to help and I would be released from state prison soon.
There has been no response to it. When I put it in the mail I didn't really know what to expect, but with the nature of the letter and officials focused on rehabilitation I thought I would at least get a "thanks but no thanks."
I related that I have moral and ethical values as a 62-year-old and that my domestic offense came out of wrong thinking, not criminal thinking and I have had these values all my life. I believe that having been "inside" for nearly 10 years who better to understand and work with offenders than someone who has been there? The goal of course is to keep people from coming (back) to prison.
I guess this warden in Bucks County, Pennsylvania doesn't see it that way, doesn't care or thought it was a joke. It wasn't a joke! Does that make rehabilitation is a myth?
"Us" and "Them"The staff advisor/coordinator of our incarcerated Vietnam Veteran's of America chapter here at SCI Cresson in Pennsylvania talks with us on things not all veteran related. One thing he has said about public perception is that there is an "us" and "them" mentality outside.
Basically he says the "us" is those in the communities who look at the prisons telling the officials that they should take care of "them." The plain and simple fact is that about 90% of "them" will eventually become part of "us."
Speaking for myself, I won't be an "us" because that whole mentality is a segregating thing. In our democratic society we are supposed to be above that sort of thing.
I am not smarter than anyone else but I would love to be able to tell what I have experienced to help others. I think having a message that is relevant and that has real meaning trumps smart. To that end I guess I would have to conclude the warden I sent my letter to is a closed minded individual.
Prison is a warehouse
Prison is a business to warehouse "bad" people. About five years ago statistics from the Justice Department cited Pennsylvania as keeping its prisoners longer than any state on average of 69 months per prisoner. Texas was second at 55 months and I think Wisconsin was third at 38 months. To make that number stand out more, Texas leads the nation in number of sentences of 20 years or longer.
Currently Pennsylvania houses state prisoners in county prisons that have open beds and they are exploring sending prisoners to other states. As reported in the USA TODAY over the summer, other states are finding ways to close prisons in favor of less costly methods to monitor its prisoners while maintaining public safety. Pennsylvania is proposing to build four new 2000 bed facilities.
There are many contributing factors. In my case I am maxing out my sentence because my prosecuting attorney, Mr. T. Gary Gambardella, (who is running for District Attorney in Bucks County, Pennsylvania) has objected to my parole five times. It isn't a public safety issue
- never was.
I am not the only one in this situation. Pennsylvania has 51,000 prisoners in 28 facilities designed for 43,000 as reported on the news locally. I even heard a guest on HLN say that there are too many people in prison who don't need to be there.
Lets talk about (the perception of) rehabilitation. In Pennsylvania we had a parole moratorium near the end of 2008 where all paroles were suspended. The basis was the shooting of a Philadelphia police officer by a parolee.
It was tragic for sure, but unfortunately people (some parolees) will commit violent crimes. Do we want to take measures to limit this - certainly we do. That's where the concept of rehabilitation programs in prison comes into play.
Consider this - perhaps the prisons themselves, are part of the problem. From my experience too many prison staff seem to come to work to collect a paycheck rather than to do a job. That is easy for an inmate to say, but as part of "them" I get to see examples first hand as the "us" look the other way. To be fair they are not the majority, but they have impact as inmates observe them.
When the parole moratorium was lifted it was pretty much back to business as usual.
It's a Catch-22. The parolee who killed the police officer was on parole after 10 years of a maximum 12-year sentence. People decried, "How could you let him out?" However, if that individual were to have been kept to complete his sentence and released unsupervised and he killed a police officer, they would have cried, "Why wasn't he released under strict supervised parole before just letting him go?"
Then the question comes up about rehabilitation in prison.
ParoleA study was done during the moratorium it concluded that the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole (PBPP) runs one of the best parole systems in the country. PBPP and DOC leaders reported to the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary at a hearing that other states study Pennsylvania's parole system. Really?
Based on recommendations by Dr. John Goldkamp of Temple University in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania DOC and PBPP set up a mandatory program called Violence Prevention for violent offenders to complete before they could be paroled.
This program, run by the Pennsylvania DOC, was in place but it wasn't mandatory. This created a long waiting list. I had three cellies, or former cellies, who got into separate sessions of VP but with the same staff counselor. He was supposedly specially trained to be a group leader for this program but only about 30% of the scheduled sessions were held and everyone got a certificate of completion. The other VP group leader ran a complete program.
Great for the inmate who didn't want to participate in the first place but how does that equate to the DOC and PBPP for the perceived value of the effectiveness of program?
I proactively did the program a couple years ago. On a personal level I am, and have been, 100% program compliant with good work, housing and psych reports, institution support for parole for each of my five parole reviews and I have the lowest OVRT (violent offender rating) under the new system to rate violent offenders. The PBPP even approved my parole home plan yet I am still here.
Another thing - a friend was recently transferred back here from South Carolina for a technical parole violation. He said Carolina officials said they could have handled otherwise but it wasn't their call.
And state officials wonder why the Pennsylvania prisons are so overcrowded?
The PBPP is on record (Reynolds v PBPP) saying it has basic guidelines for parole and yet admits that it holds itself to no guidelines for making decisions granting or denying paroles. Try to explain the logic (and efficiency) of that to family, etc.
Further, the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (Article V, Section 9) holds there is a right to review or appeal from decisions by an administrative agency or a court of record to a court of record or an appellate court.
However the PBPP holds itself above that and says that is has "sole discretion" in all parole decisions and there is no right for an administrative review of any decision. The problem is the courts have set a roadblock of precedents to support the PBPP. I have filed to the court to review that trying to make it a constitutional issue.
Responsibility and Cooperation
In spite of the lip service that the PBPP and the Pennsylvania DOC cooperate, there seems to be little or no cooperation. They snowballed the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Pennsylvania DOC and the PBPP just go about their business separately and workers come to work and collect a paycheck and they let those outside (remember the "us"?) think they are doing a noble service to the community. One footnote, the majority of staff are not like that.
Prison overcrowding is a huge issue now. The DOC wants and needs to made bed space and they are handcuffed. As for the PBPP, it doesn't seem to get it. The legislators - who knows what they are thinking?
Perhaps if things were properly addressed and dealt with by all parties all along this crisis would likely not exist to the extent that it does today.
A few weeks ago I wrote a brief "Open letter to the Pennsylvania legislature" for the Graterfriends newsletter published by The Pennsylvania Prison Society. GF is a publication with mostly inmate contributions. I hope they print it.
The premise was simple as they wrangle with a state budget and prison overcrowding being one of the concerns therein. Provide for early release for anyone maxing out a sentence with say less than 9 months left to go. They'd be out in a matter of months anyway. I don't have the numbers but my guess is that it would open up hundreds of beds and would relieve some pressure on the state and county systems.
It isn't the solution and in a perfect world you wouldn't consider this. But in times of crisis you take drastic unconventional steps. Look at what we are doing with the economy by giving money away for free to stimulate spending and to ease the burdens of middle class America.
The "us" want to be separated from "them" and they have no concept of the process and consequences. What is the worst and most violated value in communications - Lack of information or ignorance of it?
I'm sorry for wanting to make a difference.