Pennsylvania Prison Society turns 230

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"Man in Cellblock" is the title of an image taken at Eastern State Penitentiary. The shuttered institution, once considered a model of compassionate prison innovation, will be the site of Wednesday's celebration honoring the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which turns 230 years old on May 8.

As the Pennsylvania Prison Society’s new executive director, Claire Shubik-Richards will take the podium at Wednesday’s celebration of the society’s 230th birthday at the Eastern State Penitentiary.

On Tuesday, she spent the day preparing her remarks.

But she could have saved herself a lot of work by simply reading from the preamble to the group’s constitution, dated May 8, 1787, and drafted by the nation’s earliest leaders — Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Franklin, to name a few.

“When we reflect upon the miseries which penury, hunger, cold, unnecessary severity, unwholesome apartments, and guilt (the usual attendants of prison) involve with them, it becomes us to extend our compassion” to people in prison, so “their undue and illegal sufferings may be prevented,” she could read.

Shubik-Richards, who does plan to read some of the preamble, could use the words about preserving “unbroken” the links “which should bind the whole family of mankind together,” and talk about research into “such degrees and modes of punishment may be discovered and suggested, as may, instead of continuing habits of vice, become the means of restoring our fellow creatures to virtue and happiness.”

In 1787, Shubik-Richards said, there were 200 inmates in a jail on Walnut Street. Now there are 84,000 people incarcerated in Pennsylvania’s state and county prisons.

These days, the prison society preserves “unbroken” the links that bind families together by arranging transportation from Philadelphia to state prisons around the Commonwealth, she said.

Some 200 volunteers, responding to requests from friends and family members, visit people in prison to see whether they are experiencing “undue and illegal sufferings” and finally, mentors help people getting out of prison to reconnect with the outside world, with the goal of restoring them “to virtue and happiness,” Shubik-Richards said in an interview Tuesday, explaining what the society does.

She took over her post in January, replacing long-term director Ann Schwartzman who will remain on as a policy director.

Shubik-Richards said she set no immediate new goals or priorities as she begins her leadership, just simply to “strengthen everything we do.”

What heartens her, she said, is that “this is a moment in time in which so many of our leaders recognize the tenets that Benjamin Rush declared.” For example, the candidates for Philadelphia’s district attorney are talking more about reform and less about getting tough on crime and mandatory minimums. Fifteen or 20 years ago, she said, the campaign rhetoric was different.

On Wednesday, awards will go to inmate Joyce Schofield, a lifer at Muncy state prison, who has been involved in many programs there, including hospice care; volunteer Gene Breisch, a weekly visitor at Muncy who has persistently pushed for better conditions at the prison, and to Major Gina Clark, for her persistent commitment and compassionate assistance to juvenile lifers at Graterford as they are leaving prison. 

One in an occasional series, part of a region-wide collaborative news project about the challenges — and solutions — of prison reentry in Philadelphia. Click here to read more work by our partners.