AUTHOR: Constance Martin & Janet Irons
AGENCY: Pennsylvania Prison Society - Centre County Chapter
Prison is a place where people convicted of crimes are put away and often forgotten by society. But the fact is that 95% of people who are incarcerated will return to our communities. Thus, even though prison wall separates us from them, incarcerated people are part of a larger community.
During the current crisis, people in prison have died of COVID-19 at three times the rate of the general population and have an infection rate 5.5 times as high. Once the virus enters a prison, it’s not just a threat to the people who live and work there, it’s a threat to the surrounding community. A prison outbreak accelerates the community spread of COVID-19. The Centre County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Prison Society has advocated for extensive testing, access to vaccines, and the release of individuals awaiting trial who are not a threat to the community. This is a public health issue we can reverse.
Unfortunately, what happens behind prison walls is often invisible to the public at large. In Pennsylvania, however, we have the opportunity to provide citizen oversight of our prisons. Pennsylvania is one of only three states that provide this citizen oversight by law. Prison Society volunteers have access to people who are incarcerated and can serve as witnesses and advocates. This access has become especially important as COVID -19 has further restricted family visits. Fair treatment, medical care, and the stresses of solitary confinement are among the biggest concerns of incarcerated people. Bu monitoring prison conditions, Prison Society volunteers can insure transparency and accountability of these important issues.
In addition to advocacy, our Chapter has provided programming at the Centre County Correctional Facility. We offer yoga, meditation , lectures from volunteers, support for holiday events and a nationally recognized parenting program which has shown to reduce recidivism. Prior to COVID-19 restrictions, we organized line dancing and the distribution of library books.
One of the common saying of incarcerated people and their allies is that we are not defined by the worst thing we have ever done. The Prison Society leans into the dignity and worth of people, whether incarcerated or not. By establishing a one-to-one connection through visits and correspondence, Prison Society volunteers learn the value of recognizing the humanity in everyone.
With two State Institutions (Rockview and Benner Township) and the county facility we are receiving more requests than we can manage. We are in urgent need of additional Official Visitors/Prison Monitors. For more information or to learn how to become a volunteer check www.prisonsociety.org/about us, or facebook page at @ppscentre county or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org