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.

It’s about ‘Time’

President Obama’s speech on July 14 to the NAACP Convention in Philadelphia about the failed criminal justice system recalled a commentary I wrote in 1992 when editor of The Keystone Veteran, a quarterly newspaper of Pennsylvania Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). VVA is the only veteran’s organization that advocates for veterans behind bars.

My commentary, ‘Paying Now or Paying Later’ was published after rumors began flying that our Pennsylvania legislators were considering the closure of a hundred year old school that had been graduating students who went on to higher education.

Scotland School for Orphans of the War is located in Franklin County—south of Harrisburg. The school was established as a boarding school to educate orphans whose fathers had ”… died in the War”. My father and his brothers, sons of a deceased Civil War Navy veteran, would attend Scotland, living on the campus every school year through to graduating from the 12th grade. The school was overseen and received funding from the state. However the school also enjoyed support from hundreds of veteran groups throughout Pennsylvania. Because I edited the Pennsylvania’s VVA quarterly newspaper, circumstances in 1991 found me escorting my father back to his alma mater where he’d not set foot since his 1918 graduation.

Open to children across the Commonwealth, by 1991 very few of the students attending Scotland School had relatives with military service connections. Although there was an aggressive statewide recruiting campaign to enroll youngsters from around Pennsylvania, most of the students attending Scotland came from Philadelphia. Back then it cost close to $25,000 per year to educate and house a Scotland School student. The Harrisburg lawmakers were concerned about this yearly cost per child and that a majority of the student population came from Philadelphia. Many of those city children suffered from learning disabilities or behavior problems–liabilities that in any school require one-on-one attention

In ‘Paying Now or Paying Later, I wrote: Students may also carry the additional hurdles of deteriorating neighborhoods or streets filled with drugs. These are the children who are candidates for the next generation of the $80,000 a year inmate.

The following year I attended Scotland School’s 1992 graduation ceremony where 26 of the 29 graduates (one was a Caucasian)  had been accepted at colleges, junior colleges or technical schools. A few weeks after that graduation I attended a similar ceremony—this one inside the walls of the State Correctional Institute at Graterford. One hundred and eleven men (a few were Caucasian) received diplomas for GEDs, Vocational Certificates and Associate Degrees. One inmate received his Master’s; another received his Bachelor of Arts.

Around that same time a segment appeared on ’60 Minutes’ about inmates receiving federal grants to further their education. Within days of that segment federal legislation put that to a stop. Now inmates wanting to further their education must pay for it themselves or with the help from friends or family. Since then, it just got worse. Mandatory Sentencing, as President Obama described, has made America the country with the most imprisoned people—mostly black–who are serving time for offenses that would keep them locked up for years.

I’d heard and read that a “lot of black people” were locked up in prisons. My reality check came in 1989 when VVA held a State Council meeting inside SCI Graterford. The administration allowed 70 inmates (all veterans) to attend the meeting in the prison’s auditorium. There were only three white faces out of those 70 inmates. It was the same at other state prisons I entered: overwhelmingly black faces. Everywhere.

In 1989 there were less than 10 state prisons in Pennsylvania. Now there are 24. The passing of the Mandatory Sentencing law has been a gold mine for the prison-industrial complex. I never understood why they insisted on using the word corrections to define our prisons. They’re not correcting. They’re punishing. A lifer I know when describing the changes he’d seen in his 35 years at Graterford would begin by saying, “Since coming to this plantation …”

Scotland School closed in 2009. A couple years ago I had a conversation with a man who retired after a career in the juvenile probation and parole system. He shared with me that there was an opportunity for Scotland School to come under the umbrella of Hershey School. In 2013 Scotland School was purchased by the Winebrenner Theological Seminary for $1.8 million.

Distressed neighborhoods in Philadelphia continually deteriorate from poor schools, drugs and violence.