Dear Prison Society Supporters:
Recently we asked you to share your priorities for the Department of Corrections’ new era of leadership under the Shapiro administration. We received a wide range of responses from people with incarcerated loved ones, staff at state correctional facilities, and Prison Society volunteers.
Prison Society supporters say their priorities include improving the conduct of corrections officers, removing barriers to in-person visiting, addressing gaps in medical and mental health care, serving more nutritious food, and expanding successful programming.
We have been sharing these responses with state senators who will vote on the confirmation of Governor Shapiro’s nominee for Secretary of Corrections, Laurel Harry.
Improve the conduct of corrections officers
Inappropriate conduct by staff was a chief concern Prison Society supporters mentioned. Some people shared stories of their loved ones being abused by corrections officers.
“I thought the prison workers were supposed to keep the inmates safe, but I now know they are hurting them, torturing them, and abusing them,” wrote one woman who said her husband had been assaulted by a corrections officer.
Others mentioned unprofessional conduct they experienced while visiting prisons. “Staff should have to adhere to the rules of no tobacco products on premises. Spitting tobacco juice into a cup during work hours is unbelievable,” wrote one person about a visit with an incarcerated loved one.
A Prison Society volunteer commented on a corrosive culture of “racism, misogyny, nepotism, bias,” and “white supremacy” among prison staff. Another volunteer said that cronyism shields corrections officers from accountability: “The folks receiving the grievances have very little appetite to favor an inmate when the complaint is against a relative or friend.”
Remove barriers to in-person visiting
Making in-person visits easier and eliminating barriers introduced during the pandemic was a top concern of people with incarcerated loved ones. A number of people mentioned how the new system of scheduling visits in advance online makes visiting more difficult. Several said they wanted the DOC to return to the old system, where they could show up during visiting hours without pre-scheduling.
“Current process is cumbersome and not visitor friendly,” one person wrote.
Others complained that visiting time slots didn’t work with their schedules.
“Increase visitation time slots so that families do not have to pay for overnights to be able to do early morning visits,” one person wrote.
Address gaps in medical and mental health care
A number of people raised concerns about medical care and the treatment of incarcerated people living with mental illness. The $5 copay for medical visits was cited specifically, as it often deters incarcerated people from seeking care for an illness or injury.
“Eliminate medical co-pay in order [to] remove barrier to medical care,” one loved one of an incarcerated person wrote.
“I’m extremely concerned about healthcare services,” wrote a person who identified themself as a former DOC employee. “The bureau's [healthcare] has been gradually downgraded.”
There were also many concerns about how the prisons care for people with mental illness and addiction, with multiple people saying it was the biggest challenge facing the department.
One person characterized the treatment of these vulnerable individuals as “unjust punishment of mentally ill inmates for their disability.”
Serve more nutritious food
Providing quality, nutritious food was another major priority for Prison Society supporters.
One person with an incarcerated loved one asked for “better access to healthy food, including fresh vegetables and fruit in order to improve inmate health.”
One person said her husband has let staff know of a food allergy but continues to be served food he cannot eat. Honoring religious dietary restrictions was another concern mentioned.
Previously, a Prison Society survey found that the policy of serving meals in-cell makes it more difficult to make substitutions for food items that don’t accommodate an incarcerated person’s dietary restrictions. Incarcerated people also reported a decline in food quality since the DOC closed dining halls and switched to in-cell dining, and the vast majority of incarcerated people said they wanted the dining halls to reopen.
Expand successful programming
Several people mentioned educational and other programs the DOC provides to incarcerated people as one of the department’s biggest strengths. But they wanted programming to be expanded, given how important it is to a successful reentry.
“Provide educational opportunities (academic or vocational) to incarcerated people who are not close to their ‘minimum’ yet in order to prepare them for release and give them a sense of purpose,” wrote one person with an incarcerated loved one.