Incarcerated men join giving circles to redefine themselves

Dec 17, 2021, 11:54 AM | Updated: 1:07 pm

For one month each summer, roughly 60 middle-school students around Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania, descend on the campus of Bucknell University to attend the Kaupas Camp. At the free day camp, organized by the local school district, Bucknell coaches run clinics in basketball, field hockey, and other sports. Campers can learn, for example, about ecology or how to play the drums. For some, it’s the first time they’ve set foot on a college campus. These opportunities are provided in large part by philanthropists serving long-term sentences at a nearby medium-security prison.

At the State Correctional Institute–Coal Township, about 250 men participate in the Lifeline Association, a giving circle that contributes to charities in the surrounding Pennsylvania coal region. Many of its members are incarcerated for life; the rest will have spent at least 10 years in prison by the end of their sentences.

The men in Lifeline were drawn to the camp’s mission to connect local kids with a range of extracurricular activities in hopes that they’ll discover a new passion to pursue during the school year. They understand that can help change a child’s trajectory and prevent kids from disconnecting from their community or even harming it.

David Dawud Lee, a founding member of Lifeline who is serving a life sentence for being on the scene of the shooting death of another young man, knows about disconnection. Interventions like the Kaupas Camp are critical for kids’ need to feel that they belong and are valued.

“If we have an opportunity to send a child to camp, to experience something that I never experienced in my lifetime,” Lee says, “I think that’s a wonderful thing.”

While Lifeline primarily contributes to charities that promote the well-being of children, the group has also given to nonprofits that serve incarcerated people. Members gave $2,000 to Books Through Bars, which mails free books to people incarcerated in mid-Atlantic prisons, and $500 to the Human Rights Coalition, which helps families advocate for better treatment of incarcerated relatives. In addition, they raised $3,743 for Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and $500 for Marley’s Mission, a local nonprofit that offers horseback-riding therapy to children overcoming trauma.

Before the Lifeline Association was established, in 2016, many of the men incarcerated for life at SCI Coal Township, as the prison is known, longed for programs designed just for them. Gradually, the men who would establish Lifeline found one another inside the prison. They shared a sense of justice and a desire to mentor their peers and encourage them to expand their idea of who an incarcerated person could be and how he could contribute.

That camaraderie has changed how they experience prison life. “Without it, I would have still been drowning,” says Tito McGill, a Lifeline member who is serving a life sentence for homicide. “It was something I could hold on to to float with until I could find my buoyancy, until I could find a space to make other people be able to float.”

McGill, Lee, and others led by example, and that impressed Thomas McGinley, superintendent of SCI Coal Township. He tapped them to start Lifeline with the help of other men who were known as informal leaders and mentors, as well as several prison staff members. Three hundred people responded to the initial call for members.

The generosity and introspection that Lifeline encourages has a profound effect on its members, McGinley says. “It not only has them become more empathetic to the victims and the victims’ family but allows them to also see the forest beyond the trees and say that there’s more out there — that we can help.”

Members pay $7 in annual dues from the accounts they hold at the prison for wages from janitorial, food-service, tutoring, and other jobs they do there. Family members and friends can also make contributions. Lifeline raises more funds by selling concessions from local vendors inside the prison. In advance of the Super Bowl, for example, the group advertised a sale of chips and soda. Sales of locally produced Pellman cheesecakes are especially popular. Other fundraising drives have sold items like vitamins and earbuds.

McGinley must approve each event, but Lifeline members plan and schedule them on their own. The prison holds the money and cuts checks to the nonprofits Lifeline members choose to support.

Long before they started the group, the founders were focused on encouraging what they call “transformation” within themselves and their peers. To them, rehabilitation is a quick fix, while transformation addresses what led Lifeline members to commit the crimes that landed them in prison.

“I’ve been in prison for 33 years now. The person I was 33 years ago don’t exist today,” says Lee. “We change, we become better, we care about our communities, we care about our families, and we want people to know these things.”

It is important to Lee and others that Lifeline include a mentorship program to make sure their peers have the support they need to stay committed to change. So Lifeline began Dare to Care, a 15-week mentorship program open to the full prison population.

Academic learning is also crucial. At the request of Saleem Barlow, a founding member of Lifeline, Bucknell sociologist Carl Milofsky designed a college class that brings together about 12 Bucknell students with about seven men serving life sentences.

During the pandemic, most of prison life has been crammed inside the cell block, if not the cell itself. Lifeline’s leaders share a cell block, and they’ve kept meeting throughout the pandemic. Full membership meetings, however, have been suspended. Milofsky’s class has continued on Zoom, with students from SCI Coal Township calling in masked-up from their cells. Men incarcerated at the prison endured months of near-complete lockdown.

They spent roughly 23 hours a day in their cells, including mealtimes. Time in the prison yard was cut back to just 50 minutes every few days, down from three outdoor periods a day. Visits from family, friends, and associates like Milofsky were suspended for nearly 17 months. Despite the precautions, Covid-19 cases soared at the prison last winter. To date, more than 600 people incarcerated at SCI Coal Township have contracted the coronavirus, and three have died.

As the virus upended day-to-day life inside and outside the prison, Lifeline donated $1,500 to the COVID-19 relief effort at the Geisinger Health Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the regional medical system.

But COVID-19 is far from the only challenge that Lifeline members share with nearby communities. The men say they identify with the social issues in the area, which was once home to bustling mining towns populated with immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and Eastern Europe. And while there’s plenty of need in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, which many of Lifeline’s members call home, they recognize that rural communities can also face long-term problems like poverty, trauma, and addiction.

“If we have an opportunity to help these people, we’re going to help them,” says McGill, the Lifeline member. “It just felt natural to say, ‘OK, let’s just reach out to these people right around us and let them know that we’re right here in their community and we’re here to help them and support them in any way we can.'”

___

This article was provided to The Associated Press by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Emily Haynes is a staff writer at the Chronicle. Email: emily.haynes@philanthropy.com. The AP and the Chronicle receive support from the Lilly Endowment for coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits. The AP and the Chronicle are solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Incarcerated men join giving circles to redefine themselves