For the holidays, the Delaware County Coalition for Prison Reform has delivered more than 1,000 greeting cards so people incarcerated at the county’s George W. Hill Correctional Facility could write to those on the outside.
“This is a lifeline, because it allows people to reconnect in a way that is very easy,” said Jacquie Jones, an attorney on the leadership team for the group, known as DelcoCPR. “And it allows people to start forming relationships before they get out of jail, and we’re hoping that we can just sort of cause families to have more connection.”
It was an idea that grew out of a similar campaign by the group during the first wave of the pandemic, when visitors were not allowed to enter the privately run prison.
“We got such a good response … that I think we were just happy to do it again this [time],” said Jones.
Initially, the organization wanted to collect notepads, notebooks, and writing utensils. It negotiated with the prison, and the two parties agreed that a greeting card collection drive would work best. DelcoCPR then set up an Amazon Wishlist, where participants could pick out boxes of cards. During the previous card drives, DelcoCPR ran into some issues with the prison regarding logistics.
“Because of the way the prison system is set up, you can’t just have people bringing in anything. So we had to have them ordered specifically from a service that was approved. The pens have to be approved — all these things for safety reasons and for security,” Jones said.
This time around, the plan went off without a hitch.
“We have a leadership team that’s made up of everyone from community activists to attorneys to people who are formerly incarcerated, and what we discovered is that there are certain things that are just really difficult when you are incarcerated, especially around the holidays, like communicating with family and friends,” Jones said.
Gwen McCullough is the direct services coordinator for DelcoCPR. She has an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, and is also in the process of obtaining her master’s — all while working for the Pennsylvania legislature. But she was previously incarcerated at the George W. Hill Facility. Recently pardoned by Gov. Tom Wolf, she said she often thinks back to her time at the prison, where she would be allowed only three pieces of yellow legal paper to write down all her thoughts.
“When I was there, I wanted to write a letter to my mother and I wanted to write a letter to my daughter, and I only had three pieces of paper. So I did one letter to my mom on one side of the legal paper, and then I wrote the other letter to my daughter on the other side of the legal paper,” McCullough said.
DelcoCPR’s leaders believe that the opportunity to write to those on the outside is invaluable.
“Being able to put words on paper and give that to someone you care about goes a really long way,” McCullough said.
Prior to its Writing Behind Bars collection drives, the organization ran a donation campaign for bras and books. If someone enters the prison system with a bra and it has an underwire, the bra is confiscated. In 2017, the county prison was experiencing a bra shortage, according to McCullough. DelcoCPR pulled together resources and donated 102 bras in addition to 40 boxes of books. The prison has not let the organization donate books since that drive, she said.
However, the organization’s leaders say they won’t let that discourage them.
“I would like George W. Hill to have a functioning library, and Delco CPR is fully committed to being a part of that,” McCullough said.
DelcoCPR also has spearheaded voting campaigns at the prison with the help of the facility.
“Many … who are incarcerated are still allowed to vote, so the prison was very cooperative in getting people registered and allowing people to vote absentee if they were eligible for that,” Jones said.
The organization has developed a well-connected network over the years to quickly identify the needs of the prisoners. The work of cultivating these contacts is done by a storytelling team.
“Our storytelling team talks to people who were incarcerated and their families, and now because of how great they’ve been doing with that, when there’s something going on in the prison, people reach out to us to let us know what is going on,” Jones said.
Deprivatization of the prison — the long-term goal of DelcoCPR — is moving forward. Earlier this week, the Delaware County Council unanimously voted to name CGL Cos., a Florida-based facilities services firm, to handle the transition of the facility back to public control. CGL was recommended by the county’s Jail Oversight Board because of its experience handling a similar project in Virginia.
The transition process is expected to begin in January. If the initial analysis is approved by the council, GEO Group, the current manager of the prison, would be given a 180-day notice that Delco was ending its contract. The county would be in control of the prison by fall 2021.
“These inmates are our neighbors and will be returning to our neighborhoods, so we owe it to them and to our entire community to provide support and training so that they can lead productive lives when they are released and return to our community,” County Councilman Kevin Madden said in a press release.
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