For one month each summer, roughly 60 middle-school students in the Mount Carmel, Pa., area descend on the campus of nearby 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 learn about ecology and how to play the drums. For some, it’s the first time they’ve set foot on a college campus. These opportunities are in large part possible thanks to philanthropists who are serving long-term sentences at a nearby medium-security prison.
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For one month each summer, roughly 60 middle-school students around Mount Carmel, Pa., 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 who are 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.
It’s about changing children’s trajectory — preventing them from disconnecting from their community or even harming it. “If they’re involved with something, they’re less likely to fall behind academically, behaviorally, socially,” says Pete Cheddar, superintendent of schools in the Mount Carmel Area School District.
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. Educational and social opportunities are not often available to men serving life sentences. 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 dues each year, 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 to these accounts. 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. These fund drives have continued during the pandemic, even when the prison was in lockdown.
Just as community foundations distribute funds raised by local giving circles, the prison holds the money from Lifeline’s dues and fundraising drives and cuts checks to the nonprofits Lifeline members choose to support.
People have long used giving both to express their values and to relieve themselves of guilt and shame, says Tyrone Freeman, an assistant professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. “Through giving we can be the kind of person we aspire to be,” he says. “We can support the larger public good — and particularly through a giving circle, we get to do that with others.”
Giving circles are especially popular with women and people of color, whose voices have long been muted in formal philanthropic settings. About 60 percent of giving circles are identity-based, made up of people who share the same race, gender, faith, or other affinity. Lifeline’s members all share the experience of long-term incarceration; about 80 percent of them are Black men.
When they themselves need support, people who have historically been marginalized from formal social services because of their race, gender, immigration status, or other identity have long turned to informal philanthropic networks. This is particularly true in the Black community, says Freeman, who studies Black philanthropy. “When all the sectors of society are conspiring against you, you turn inward. It’s a fundamental expression of human dignity.”
‘We Become Better’
Dignity is at the heart of Lifeline’s mission. 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. They know how difficult it is to go through the transformation process alone, and they want 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.
Participants meet weekly for discussions of topics like character development, relationships, and decision making. Lee, who facilitates the program, expects everyone to contribute to these discussions, respect each other, and listen to their peers without interrupting them. Mentors also often meet with their mentees outside of Dare to Care discussions, in the prison yard or on the cell block. They hold their mentees accountable to their commitment to transformation, Lee says.
Academic learning was also crucial. Saleem Barlow, a founding member of Lifeline, wrote 57 letters to college professors asking them to teach a course for Lifeline members, in the fashion of the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program, in which college students and incarcerated people learn together in the same class taught at the prison. The only professor who responded was Carl Milofsky, a sociologist at Bucknell.
After completing 60 hours of training with Inside Out, he designed a college class that brought together about 12 Bucknell students with about seven men serving life sentences. The students met in a classroom at the prison. One course explored topics like group dynamics, identity, and deviant behavior. Another, called “Experiencing Prison,” used reflective writing and dialogue to examine the sociology of emotions.
The visiting college students aren’t allowed to ask their incarcerated classmates why they are in prison. “No one in the inside group feels they deserve what they’re getting,” Milofsky told the Bucknell group. “They feel they have reformed. You will meet these guys and like them, but don’t forget they’ve been involved in a terrible crime. You will meet men who are very humane, broadly read; they’re just locked up. You’re the only breath of fresh air they get.”
Milofsky began joining the more engaged Lifeline members for small group discussions called the “think tank” in 2016. Before the pandemic, he invited leaders of local nonprofits to go to the prison to meet with the group.
One of those leaders was Jake Betz, director of the Mother Maria Kaupas Center, a Catholic social-services charity in Mount Carmel. He’s also volunteer director of the Mount Carmel Area Ministerium Food Pantry, to which Lifeline has contributed $5,000, in addition to canned goods, winter hats, and gloves.
The first time Betz went to SCI Coal Township to meet with Lifeline members, he was apprehensive. He’d never set foot in a prison before. But more than that, he wasn’t sure why they cared about his charity work in Mount Carmel, which he notes has suffered from declines in the economy and in community cohesion.
“I couldn’t understand how inmates in that situation were able to have that interest in a community in which they never even actually walked around,” Betz says. “It was an eye-opener for me and also very inspiring. They had concerns for people they never even met and probably never will.”
During Lifeline meetings, members brainstorm ways to help the region. As Lee says, “We knew that we had to humanize ourselves and build relationships with the community that would allow people outside to know exactly who we are as human beings.”
A critical part of participating in society “is making it work better,” says Milofsky, now a professor emeritus. That motivation drives both the charitable gifts Lifeline makes to nonprofits beyond the prison walls and the mentoring program its members run inside. Some mentees in Dare to Care are serving shorter sentences, and their mentors hope they will take the lessons learned in the program with them when they leave.
Only a small fraction of the more than 1,500 men incarcerated at SCI Coal Township share the Lifeline members’ commitment to transformation, Milofsky believes. The process distinguishes those men from their peers. Lifeline members are able to maintain equanimity in an environment that’s often chaotic and always stratified.
“People around the prison recognize that they’ve gotten to be in a special mental and emotional place,” Milofsky says.
He compares the transformation process to 12-step recovery programs, which help people overcome substance-use disorders. Lifeline members acknowledge plainly that their crimes caused deep harm to other people. But they reject the idea that their physical incarceration consigns them to a kind of moral, intellectual, or emotional atrophy.
“When you’re inside, it’s like you’re living in sensory deprivation,” says Barlow, the Lifeline member. He was sentenced to life in prison after being the lookout in an armed robbery of a bank in Harrisburg, Pa., just after he turned 18. He served 50 years for that crime — 48 of them without parole — until Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolfe commuted his sentence in 2019, when Barlow was 68.
Throughout his time in the criminal-justice system, Barlow counseled his peers. In 1971, when he was at another prison, he founded Community First Step, a group in which men could discuss politics, economics, religion, and other topics, and invite speakers. As he was transferred among prisons throughout Pennsylvania, he maintained his role as a mentor. His peers appreciated Barlow’s counsel and perspective. Those in Lifeline called him “the dean.”
McGinley, the prison superintendent, says he recommended that Barlow’s sentence be commuted because of his long commitment to mentorship, including his participation in Lifeline. He “needed to be part of the community again, because he’s been giving back to the community for so long.”
‘We Can Help’
During the pandemic, most of prison life has been crammed inside the cell block, if not the cell itself.
Giving Circles Multiply
Because giving-circle members set the agenda for their own group, the focus and structure of giving circles can vary significantly. Generally, they’re informal and social — like a book club with a philanthropic purpose. Taken together, individuals’ small gifts can have a big impact. Researchers estimate that U.S. giving circles may have donated more than $1 billion to charity.
Men incarcerated at SCI Coal Township endured months of near-complete lockdown. They spent roughly 23 hours a day in their cells, including mealtimes. Time outdoors, in the prison yard, was cut back to just 50 minutes every few days, down from three periods a day outside, each spanning 1 hour and 45 minutes. Visits from family, friends, and associates like Milofsky and Betz were suspended for nearly 17 months.. During that time, people incarcerated there had to make do with phone and video calls.
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. The prison has so far vaccinated nearly 94 percent of its population, although only about half of its staff members say they’re fully vaccinated.
“Getting through this pandemic hasn’t been easy,” says Lee, the Lifeline co-founder. “But I think that’s a part of what we do. Even through the hardships, even through the difficulties, we find a way to bring positive reinforcement.”
Milofsky’s class continued on Zoom, with students from SCI Coal Township calling in masked-up from their cells. Lifeline’s leaders share a cellblock that McGinley designated for them, and they’ve kept meeting throughout the pandemic. Full membership meetings, however, have been suspended.
As the virus upended day-to-day life inside and outside SCI Coal Township, 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 was 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.
By 2018, 15 percent of households in Northumberland County, where SCI Coal Township is located, lived below the poverty line. Nearly 30 percent of county households lived paycheck to paycheck; in Coal Township, that proportion was 52 percent.
Throughout coal country, many recent economic-development initiatives have come in the form of prison construction. “We’re prison-heavy and infrastructure-light,” says Joanne Troutman, a Northumberland County native who led the Greater Susquehanna Valley United Way for six years. During her tenure, the charity received contributions from Lifeline.
The prison provides 526 full-time jobs to the county, and Lifeline’s members acknowledge the complicated dynamic of giving back to a region where so many people earn their living by working at prisons. But the group’s founders say everybody loses when people who can help choose not to.
“Hurt people are hurt people,” says McGill, the Lifeline member. “If we have an opportunity to help these people, we’re going to help them.”
Lifeline members are literally walled off from the community in which they live, but through giving, they have transformed themselves from social outcasts to active citizens and even friends.
“We are just as human as everybody else,” McGill says. “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.’”