June 13, 2024


The relationships are the reward
“Even if I can’t win or do anything,” he said, “these guys will thank me for just showing up and listening. Even if I can’t do anything for them, just that conversation, just that half hour of treating them like a human being, they’ll thank me for it. “That’s my reward.”

In an earlier life, when Prison Society volunteer Greg Dober ran a successful business, he tried to mix business and pleasure on the golf course.

Greg tried, but Greg failed. He just didn’t like the game. 

Now, Greg gets golf photos from a formerly incarcerated person who hits the links every opportunity he gets now that he’s free.

“I live my golf game vicariously through him,” Greg said, chuckling. “When he’s out golfing at different courses, he just texts me the pics.”  

Seeing the man, the greens, and the smile – a big one – turned out to be much more satisfying than the game itself.

Greg began volunteering as a prison monitor in 2010. Over the years he has spent helping people, he has built up many similar relationships. As for the golfer,  Greg attends his annual birthday party. “His sister makes the best tacos,” Greg said.

“You have to develop trust. Trust, and treat people with respect,” he said. 

The Prison Society is the only organization in Pennsylvania with the legal authority to visit any of the state’s 85 prisons and jails. Prison monitors -- a network of 250 trained volunteers who visit the prisons -- talk one-on-one with incarcerated people experiencing problems and try to resolve them.

For example, Greg worked five months to help Ray, a 34-year-old man sentenced to life in prison, connect with the Innocence Project. In March, Ray, who was convicted at the age of 18, learned that the Innocence Project would take on his case.    

“I wanted to share the good news with you, Mr. G,” Ray wrote in an email to Greg. “I appreciate you and all the work that you do, hopefully one day I can be an addition to the team and provide help to those in need.”

The monitors hear about issues from people in prison or from their loved ones, either directly or through referrals from the Prison Society’s Helpline. Once the monitors look into an issue, they follow up with family members to let them know the result.

“You can have a direct impact,” said Greg, who regularly visits a state prison, SCI Fayette, about an hour’s drive south of his home near Pittsburgh, as well as three county jails in neighboring counties -- Butler, Washington, and Westmoreland. 

“The ability to listen and not judge until you are done listening” is an important trait for prison monitors, Greg said. “Don’t make initial judgments until you get the facts. You have to check your emotions at the door.”

Greg stays connected with the people he has met even when they are transferred to other prisons around the state. He keeps in touch with their loved ones, too, via emails and texts.

“Praying that you and the family are doing well also, y’all are always in my prayers,” wrote the mother of one person Greg had helped in prison.

People volunteer with the Prison Society for many reasons. Some join because they have family members who have been incarcerated. Some have received help from the Prison Society and want to pay it forward. 

Greg’s story is a little different. In his 40s, Greg decided to make a career change. He left the business world and returned to college to earn a graduate degree in bioethics.

Greg’s own research and writing on bioethics and incarceration led him to the Prison Society. He decided to volunteer as a prison monitor, particularly focused on helping people get necessary medical attention. 

It was a medical issue that connected Greg to the golfer. He had had a stroke while incarcerated and needed more rehab. Greg advocated for him to be transferred to a veteran’s hospital where he received therapy before returning to prison. 

It was a successful intervention. 

But those don’t always happen, Greg said, and that is one of the toughest aspects of being a prison monitor. 

“Maybe you bat three out of ten,” he said.

It’s easy to become discouraged, Greg said, describing the condition as “moral distress. You know the right thing to do, but sometimes because of policies and controls, you can’t change it. You feel bad about losing. 

“It took me a while to get a thicker skin,” he said. 

“When I see these guys, they are at the lowest point in their life and desperate,” Greg said. “Then when they get out and share with me how their life has progressed, it makes me proud and [makes me] realize it’s worth doing prison advocacy.

“Even if I can’t win or do anything,” he said, “these guys will thank me for just showing up and listening. Even if I can’t do anything for them, just that conversation, just that half hour of treating them like a human being, they’ll thank me for it.

“That’s my reward.” 

Join Us

Volunteers are the backbone of the Prison Society, and we are always looking for committed individuals who care deeply about human dignity. Interested in joining us? Call us at 215-564-4775 or reach out via our website at www.prisonsociety.org/services/volunteer

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