The Pennsylvania Prison Society doesn't have much money and is not "flamboyant," its executive director said Wednesday.
But William DiMascio said the society has, for the last 225 years, fought for humane conditions for the "most downtrodden among us" - those who are behind bars for committing crimes.
"Our aim is not just to endure, but to prevail: to see a future that no longer diminishes men and women through punishment but uplifts them through encouragement, empowerment and assistance," DiMascio said as he helped the society's Blair County chapter celebrate the 225th anniversary of an organization unique to Pennsylvania.
William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, addresses a group of more than 50 people Wednesday at Penn State Altoona’s Misciagna Family Center for the Performing Arts.
Ernest Fuller of Hopewell, a Quaker, visited an inmate in the Blair County Prison in 1991 and that led him to join the Blair County chapter, which then consisted of one person.
That small group has grown, and each month some of its members visit the inmates in Blair County and listen to what they have to say. If issues are raised, the Prison Society meets with Blair County Warden Mike Johnston, and the issues are addressed.
One issue now is for women in prison to have contact visits with their children while they are incarcerated, Fuller said prior to the society's criminal justice forum at Penn State Altoona.
It is considered an important step, not for the mothers as much as for the children who feel the loss of their parent while she is behind bars.
Johnston said he has come up with an idea to construct a room in the former county garage next to the jail in Hollidaysburg so that the inmates can visit with their children.
Both Fuller and Johnston said the relationship between the nonprofit organization and the prison is very good. Johnston, who has been at the prison for 28 years, thinks that with each warden since 1991, the relationship has improved.
A group of local residents, including Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva, joined the Prison Society and DiMascio not only in celebrating the group's anniversary but also to discuss the Blair County criminal justice system.
Altoona psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Silverman held up a book entitled "The Collapse of American Criminal Justice" by William J. Stuntz. Silverman said the author believes as he does.
Stuntz calls for more trials with local juries; laws that accurately define what prosecutors seek to punish; and an equal protection guarantee like the one that died in the 1870s, to make prosecution and punishment less discriminatory, according to a profile of the book on the Harvard University Press website.
Sixteen percent of inmates in Pennsylvania are suffering serious mental health problems like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or psychotic depression, Silverman said. And that doesn't include post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.
Thirty-three percent of female inmates and 21 percent of male inmates suffer from PTSD, not because of war experiences but because of the violence or loss in their lives, DiMascio said.
Silverman said many inmates receive no visits because they are being housed a great distance from home. There is lack of respect for inmates in prison, and Silverman decried the way some inmates are kept in isolation for years.
The Pennsylvania Prison Society has its roots in Philadelphia when in 1787, the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons was founded. By state law, Prison Society Official Visitors are guaranteed access to all Pennsylvania correctional facilities.
"The Prison Society has grown up with the nation. Our values are rooted in the same humanitarian soil as the democracy that defines the United States of America," DiMascio said.
As the colonists stood against powerful government, the Prison Society's earliest members stood against "harsh corporal punishments for the least offenses and of treating prisoners like animals. We have maintained that stand through the years and through changes in our culture," he said.
The society not only speaks as an advocate for inmates, but also sponsors re-entry programs and addresses the issues of the time such as mental health treatment for inmates and addressing the post-traumatic stress of those behind bars, DiMascio said.
The society is keeping an eye on how the state addresses the issue of resentencing inmates who were sentenced to life without parole when they were juveniles - a sentence recently found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court - and mandatory sentencing in general, DiMascio said.