On the last dark, cold Monday morning in January, overhead road lamps shone a dim yellow on a rain-slicked Philadelphia street. Fatimah Small shivered – and not entirely because of the temperature.
Small was outside, waiting for a Pennsylvania Prison Society bus that would take her and others the 99 miles that separated them from their family members incarcerated at State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Mahanoy in northeast Pennsylvania. Small’s brother, incarcerated there, is 41 and has been behind bars since he was 14. She last saw him in 2018.
“I’m nervous,” she said. “It’s been so long.”
There was plenty of nervousness on Market Street that morning – and the family members waiting for the bus near the William H. Gray 30 Street Station were not the only ones experiencing it.
Kirstin Cornnell, the Prison Society’s family and community support director, and Kailyn Schneider, administrative and family support associate, were feeling it too, as they worked to ensure that everything went smoothly on the first Prison Society bus trip in nearly four years.
For the previous 18 years, the Prison Society had coordinated 10 trips a month to different state prisons, facilitating over 3,000 visits a year. The trips are a key part of its mission to connect incarcerated people and their families, particularly families from the Commonwealth’s largest cities, where many people don’t own cars. But the COVID pandemic had put a stop to in-person prison visits and the bus trips. As conditions improved, the Prison Society pushed hard to re-establish in-person visits, which resumed in the Spring 2021. It took nearly another three years of relentless advocacy for even limited bus trips to resume.
Monday’s trip was the first in a six-month pilot program consisting of 12 trips from Philadelphia – six to Mahanoy and six to SCI Greene, in Waynesburg, near Pittsburgh, and 300 miles away. The Prison Society hopes to continue the trips into the future and eventually resume bus service to all the state’s prisons.
“Pennsylvania took a big step backward,” Cornnell said of the suspension of the buses since the pandemic. “This is a small step in the right direction. We have to prove that there’s a need and a want. We’ve been pushing for this for so long.”
It would not be cheap. The bus/driver rental alone for the six-month pilot cost $50,000, covered by the Department of Corrections. The $40 each rider paid didn’t begin to cover the rental as well as the cost of administrative time it took to alert families, make them aware of the Department of Corrections’ visiting rules, build a web interface, and handle reservations. More state support would be needed for the program to expand to its pre-COVID levels, as well as the cost of administrative time it takes to alert families, make them aware of the Department of Corrections’ visitation rules, build a web interface, and handle reservations.
While this is costly, compared to the Department of Corrections' $2.9 billion dollar budget, it is a comparatively small investment, with a significant return. An extensive body of research has found that incarcerated people who receive more visitors are less likely to return to jail after they are released compared to those who receive fewer or no visits. Other research points to better outcomes for families and better mental health for people in prison, as well as improved safety conditions within prisons.
“I’m glad I was able to get this service,” Small said. Small is one of 10 siblings in a family that had broken up during her childhood. She and others ended up in foster care. At one point, all six of her brothers were incarcerated at the same time.
Small re-established connection with her brother in 2011 – after not having seen him since she was five – and began regular visits, sometimes carpooling, sometimes traveling with the Prison Society. Three of her four children have met their uncle during prison visits.
“I go to support him and he’s a big support to me as well,” she said. “He tries his best to be a brother and an uncle.”
Donna Houck was also among the 15 people waiting for the bus. She had finished her shift managing a Wawa at midnight, grabbed a few hours of sleep, and showed up at 3 and Market Streets on Monday, tired but eager to see her son.
“It helps me to know he’s OK,” she said. “Hopefully, he’ll be home this year.”
Virginia Hammond tends to be almost supernaturally upbeat, but on that dark morning as she waited for the bus which would take her to her son, even she had her own dark moment. “It’s been a traumatic course,” she said, referring to life with a son in prison. “Let’s leave it that way.”
But hours after the trip ended, Hammond gleefully boasted how, once again, she was able to best her son in Scrabble, a ritual during their visits. Would she cut her son a little slack, given his situation? No, she replied, “He has to deal with the real world. He’s good, but Mom’s better.”
For Hammond, the bus visits have been crucial. Before, her son had been incarcerated at SCI Albion, 400 miles away near Erie. The Prison Society bus saved her more than $300 for gas, tolls, a motel stay, and meals on the road to visit.