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Anonymous donor aides Prison Society’s efforts

Representatives of the Blair County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Prison Society found ways to maintain contact with inmates in the county prison during the COVID-19 pandemic — thanks to a contribution by an anonymous donor and the cooperation of prison officials.

Volunteer Ed Grab, a local physician, pointed out this week that the prison society’s representatives have not been permitted to visit the inmates for several months, and he doesn’t think that will change anytime soon in view of the ongoing spread of the coronavirus.

“This is truly a captive population,” Grab said.

But he said despite the pandemic, “We are going to continue efforts to visit the prisoners.”

The society has been using one-on-one conferences with the inmates via ZOOM, and the group even found a way to show the inmates that many people outside the institution still care about them.

An anonymous donor, who was not a volunteer with the society, provided $6,000 to carry on the group’s Holiday tradition of providing gifts to the inmates.

The money was used to provide free phone time for each of the 230 inmates who were behind bars the past few weeks.

Prison officials noted the prison population, which at times soared to more than 350 inmates during the past year, has been reduced due to the pandemic.

Each inmate was granted $14 worth of phone time to contact with family and friends.

The inmates each received a prison commissary gift package of five stamped envelopes, a pad of 150 sheets of paper and a notebooks enabling them to write to their loved ones.

“This Christmas gift comes from someone thinking about you,” stated a note that accompanied the announcement of free phone time.

Traditionally, the society volunteers have made a Christmas visit to the prison where they handed out homemade cookies and sang carols in each block of the prison.

The cookies this year were given to the corrections officers to distribute.

Grab noted that the only thing lacking was the singing.

Things have changed as a result of the pandemic, Grab stated in an email outlining the society’s efforts.

Due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in the prison, he said, “I am happy to say with the cooperation of prison authorities and a very generous anonymous donation, our contribution was meaningful, minus the Christmas carols.”

Ernest Fuller, who leads the Blair County group, said that by using Zoom, his volunteers are able to communicate with the inmates.

Inmates can request conferences, but prison officials encourage other, less vocal inmates, to meet with the volunteers.

Fuller noted that conferences give the inmates a chance to talk about their problems.

If an inmate has a problem with the prison, the volunteer can discuss it with prison authorities, but many of the inmates also express concern for their families, a problem the volunteers also can assist with.

The relationship between the society and prison authorities remains strong.

Grab said that Warden Abbie Tate “really has the best interest of the inmates at heart.”

Deputy Warden Jay Whitesel called the society’s gifts “very generous.

“It helped the inmates reach out to their families. The inmates are very appreciative about what the society does,” he said.

Contact with the outside world is important, he said.

“There are people out there who love them,” Whitesel explained.

Whitesel also pointed out that the company that maintains the prison’s communication services, Encartele of La Vista, Neb., also provided free phone service for the inmates.

He said Prison Society volunteers and area clergy have not been permitted into the institution. Many of them have maintained contact with inmates by sending them letters.

The Pennsylvania Prison Society has been entering the state’s correctional facilities, both state and local, for more than 233 years.

On its website, the society, under state law, can appoint volunteers “who have the authority to privately interview any inmate in any prison or for any reason.”

Grab summed up his work simply by saying, “This is a way of really doing something for those who are forgotten in our society,” he said.

“They (prison officials) consider us a relatively important asset,” he said.

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