By David Esteppe
More than 50 percent of prisoners in federal prison get no visits from family or friends while they are incarcerated. Often this is because they are imprisoned too far away from home for visitation.
The local coordinator of Prisoner Visitation and Support (PVS), Rotarian Willa Izzo, and guest Susie Nalker, spoke to the Lewisburg Rotary on Apr. 27 about the nonprofit PVS organization.
Izzo explained, “The purpose of PVS is to provide prisoners with regular face-to-face contact from the world outside of prison to help them cope with prison life and to prepare for a successful re-entry into society.” PVS is a volunteer program for federal and military prisoners throughout the United States and it began in 1968. Now there are approximately 350 volunteer visitors across the country.
Nalker explained how Izzo recruited her and how nervous she was with her first visitation. Izzo escorted the newly trained recruit into the Alderson prison and left almost immediately. Five minutes into meeting her first prisoner, Nalker was not only at ease, but she was hooked. Providing friendship, encouragement and a listening ear is very rewarding, Nalker said. Hearing how women have made a poor choice in the company they kept, and that choice landing them in long-term prison sentences brought out the compassion in both Izzo and Nalker.
Izzo shared some insight into our country’s current prisoner situation. She said that the United States had 500,000 prisoners in 1980. Today we have 2.3 million Americans in prison. The United States is only 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
A major process leading to this mass incarceration of Americans, Izzo explained, is mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes. Four out of five drug arrests are for the possession, not the selling, of drugs. Another major component is that only 3 percent of federal cases go to trial, as prosecutors use the threat of these mandatory minimums to coerce guilty pleas. Izzo said that here in the United States, a first time drug conviction comes with five to 10 years in prison. In other developed countries the same convictions would come with six month sentences.
With America’s war on drugs, mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and some private, forprofit prison’s contracts guaranteeing prisoners slots will be paid for by tax payers whether or not each prison’s population is full, Rotarian Jan Westerik made the comment that when we elect politicians who run for office promising to be tough on crime, then these are the things on which we are voting.
The PVS is supported by many denominations of churches and community service organizations; however, PVS visitors do not impose any particular religion or philosophy on prisoners. Visitors accept prisoners for who they are, and try to support their self-growth.
Izzo told the Rotarians that the non-profit PVS has only five paid staff in the whole country. The mostly volunteer staffed organization requires as little as one day a month of a person’s time. This would include preliminary correspondence and follow-up reporting of the visit. Though visitors and prisoners speak of some personal aspects of their lives, there is no contact outside of prison. Nalker explained that sometimes a prisoner contacts the organization after landing on their feet, but only to get the message to their visitor that they are alright, and to express their gratitude for the volunteer’s visits.
For more information about Prisoner Visitation and Support, call 215-241-7117, or email PVS(&,afsc.org. One may request to view an informative video, make tax deductible donations or express their interest in becoming a PVS visitor.