Commentary: Society must not forget those it incarcerates

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During his visit to Philadelphia in September 2015, Pope Francis hugged inmate Luis Zacarias while visiting Curran- Fromhold Correctional Facility. CHARLES FOX / Staff

By Steven L. Chanenson

Prisons are usually hidden and often grim places. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.'s observation nearly 30 years ago still rings true today: "Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness."

It should not and need not be that way.

Although there is a vigorous debate over when and to what extent they should be used, prisons are a key public safety tool. Whenever used, incarceration must be effective, safe, and humane. Prisoners are not popular, but how we treat our criminals is, in the words of Winston Churchill, "one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country."

Society has a right and an obligation to protect itself, but it needs to do so while considering both the short- and the long-term consequences for all involved.

Most prisoners eventually return to our communities. Last year, almost 20,000 people were released from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. They are once again our neighbors across the commonwealth.

Thus, it is in everyone's interest for people who return from prison to come back better equipped to succeed than when they arrived there. If we want to slow the revolving door of incarceration and crime, we must provide meaningful access to treatment, training, and, yes, hope. We must hold the prisons accountable for meeting those goals, including through independent oversight. Both society and the inmates themselves deserve no less.

We must also celebrate the positive work done in prisons. One especially bright ray of hope was on display this month at the State Correctional Institution at Chester. The inmates and staff at the Chester prison partnered with other stakeholders to present a series of TEDx talks focused on the children of incarcerated parents. (TEDx talks are short, online presentations on what its organizers call "ideas worth spreading.")

Under the able leadership of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, this was the fourth set of TEDx talks from a Pennsylvania prison. Like the earlier sessions, the discussions in Chester highlighted challenges faced and progress made by the speakers. While talking about the more than 81,000 Pennsylvania children who have a parent in a Pennsylvania prison, they provided a glimpse of some constructive energy that may eventually benefit those of us outside the prison walls.

Often expressed through the personal prism of childhoods with incarcerated parents, these inmates understand the deep pain of crime victims and their own children. They are determined to create something good from their past bad decisions. These TEDx talks conveyed hope from the kind of place more frequently associated with despair.

Particularly during the holiday season, many of us think about the humanity of our fellow men and women. That is a sentiment we should nurture. We need to remember people in prison, how they are treated and what will happen to everyone when they return to our neighborhoods.

There was a clear demonstration of hope - for safer communities and our collective humanity - at the State Correctional Institution at Chester. For that, we should all be thankful.

Steven L. Chanenson is a professor of law at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law and former chair of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing. chanenson@law.villanova.edu

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