Life in Pennsylvania Prisons

“I now realize how the consequences of my crime affected the victim and her family.”

—Naim Ali Bonner, SCI Graterford Entered 1974, Died in prison 1995

Dear Dr. Oz: You Know Nothing about the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system for those serving life sentences.

Now the Truth: In Pennsylvania The Board of Pardons hears an inmate’s plea for clemency. If a majority of the Board of 5 approves the application, it is the Governor who declares a “yes” or “no”. Pennsylvanians should NOT believe the Oz ad.

Hearings are scheduled for Life sentenced inmates who have petitioned the Board of Pardons for Clemency. Other than death in a cell, a Lifer is only granted release from prison by Clemency. In Pennsylvania the Board of Pardons (as required by our State Constitution) consists of the Lt. Governor, the Attorney General, a Corrections Specialist, a Doctor of Medicine, Psychologist or Psychiatrist, and a Victims Representative.

If you visit The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons website, there is a link about Pennsylvania History of the Pardons that reaches back to 1872.

Here is the legend of Pennsylvania’s Governors from 1971 through 2015:

  • Democrat Governor Shapp’s term from1971 through1978: the Board of Pardons heard 733 applications. 251 (including 7 females) were Granted Clemency.
  • During the Republican terms of Governors Thornburgh, Ridge, Schweiker and Corbett from 1979 through 2014: 390 Petitions for Clemency were heard; Only 8 were Granted Clemency.
  • From 2015 to present, under Democrat Governor Wolfe: the Board of Pardons heard 100 applications; Governor Wolfe granted 53, 7 of them were females.

Many apply; few go Free.

In 1991 I became an advocate for people behind bars as a volunteer with Bucks County Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) Chapter 210. VVA’s National Charter includes support for Vietnam Veterans Incarcerated. As the Editor of Pennsylvania’s VVA State Newspaper (The Keystone Veteran), my tasks included joining my VVA 210 members and other state Chapter Veterans for the yearly visit to a maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania. At that time there were approximately 400 Vietnam Veterans in Pennsylvania prisons, for offenses including armed robbery, drugs, arson, assault or 1st, 2nd or 3rd degree murder, crimes inmates often shared during my conversations with them. SCI Graterford in Montgomery County was the first of four different state prisons I visited during my years with VVA 210.

In 2003 I became familiar with the Commutation process while assisting a Vietnam Veteran Lifer with his application to the Board of Pardons. Almost always these men and women apply to the Board after they’ve served 20 years or more. The application is a self-examination of how the inmate pursued his/her rehabilitation while evolving into a person who accepts responsibility for his/her crime and returns to become a contributing member of the community.

During the period from 1979 through 2014, sentencing laws changed, prison populations swelled, and the Prison Industrial Complex became the money maker. When I walked into SCI Graterford in 1991 for the first time there were 7 prisons across Pennsylvania. Today there are 23.

On my July 16, 2015 blog The Bucks Underground Railroad, I posted “It’s about time”. I’ve included the link and hope you will read it.

I’ve always wondered why prisons are called “Departments of Correction”. Prisons are about punishment not rehabilitation. Any rehabilitation usually come from the will of an inmate who chooses not to waste away in a 6’ x 8’ cell. A 20-year Lifer preparing for his commutation told me how five years into his sentence he said, “Sitting in the yard that day it hit me. I was here for Life. That’s when I decided to begin my rehabilitation.”

Citizens, Dr. Oz failed in his attempt to scare you with that campaign ad. Don’t believe the noise.

Segregated Summers, 1958

I recalled some childhood memories after reading the articles about Fanny Chapman Pool. One piece appeared in the PATCH on July 21 (“Fanny Chapman Pool marks 95th anniversary”) and then again in the Bucks County Herald on July 25 (“At Age 95 Chapman Pool Still One Of The Coolest Places In Doylestown”). Fanny Chapman is where I learned how to swim and gathered the nerve to dive off the high board.

We were “Colored people” living in Doylestown yet had been denied the privilege of swimming at the pool. The reason our father explained, was because the water would become “dirty”. My days of summer in Doylestown had consisted of hanging out at the playground, hitting a tennis ball against our tennis court’s back stop or sitting on the porch with a book, pausing in envy whenever a group of kiddos walked past our house, carrying their bathing suits rolled up in a towel, either on their way to or coming from the pool. 

My cousin Nancy Nelson, was also aware of our denial to swim at the pool. Her father Randall Nelson, the owner of Nelson’s Barber Shop on State Street was active in the Doylestown community. After the pool’s deed of trust dissolved in 1956 and ownership was transferred to Doylestown Borough, Randall Nelson approached the Council and asked the pool open its membership to people of color. In the summer of 1958, I was 12 years old and along with my sister and cousins, for the first time could jump in the shallow end of Fanny Chapman Pool.

Search Segregated Swimming Pools and dozens of articles pop up. The long history of denying people of color the privilege of swimming in a pool still continues in places across America. There was one incident when water from a pool was emptied after Black people were removed from a pool. A book published in 2010 by Jeff Wiltse, an Associate Professor of History at University of Montana-Missoula: Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, examines how attitudes toward race, class, gender and community are factors in segregated swimming pools.

A July 12, 2021 ABC-5 Cleveland television article by DaLaun Dillard noted that drowning statistics are 64% for Blacks as compared to 40% to whites. The ages of 5 to 9 and 10 to 14 are most vulnerable. If a child hasn’t learned how to swim then ponds, streams, lakes or ocean beaches are the waters that bring death on hot summer days.