Chamber sees softer side of prison with pups, flowers
COAL TOWNSHIP - The puppies were cute and the flowers simply beautiful.
Just another day at SCI-Coal Township.
Yes, pet care and gardening are part of the daily duties for some inmates at the medium-security facility, tucked in the forest east of Geisinger-Shamokin Area Community Hospital. They were surprising elements, amid the regiment and razor wire, for approximately 35 members of the Brush Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce who visited SCI-Coal Township Tuesday.
A tour of the prison grounds was part of the chamber's monthly luncheon, hosted by one of its newest members - the prison.
While there were a few taps on windows by prisoners while the group walked on sidewalks across the grounds, and a small group of inmates was washing down the sidewalk outside the cafeteria - a daily duty - there was little seen otherwise of the nearly 2,300 people incarcerated there.
Superintendent Vincent Mooney guided the tour, which included stops in the chapel, gymnasium and classroom building. He reminded the visitors that not everyone in prison is a bad person. "They are good people who made bad mistakes," he said.
As the luncheon began, prison staff who work with the FIDOS program entered the cafeteria with five of their dogs.
FIDOS - Fostering and Improving Dogs Obedience & Survival - began July 16 at SCI-Coal Township and involves 12 inmate handlers who work with six dogs.
FIDOS operates at a handful of other state correctional institutions, each with a canine training specialty. SCI-Coal Township works with dogs rescued by Brierwood Boarding Kennel and Cattery, Pottsville, from shelters that have a high euthanasia rate. Kennel staff work with prisoners twice a week on training the dogs.
Harold Hack, who runs FIDOS with fellow corrections counselor Danielle Picarelli, said it's interesting to watch the frustrations inmates experience in dealing with the dogs, which he compared to working with adolescent children. The payoff is that the inmates learn to deal with those frustrations appropriately, he said.
The dogs also "promote calm," Picarelli said.
Prisoners must meet certain criteria to work in FIDOS, and they are paid, Hack said.
"It's really interesting to go to the housing units and see big, burly men who are in here for some pretty heinous crimes walking little Tito," Mooney said, referencing one of the puppies by name.
Flowers and wire
Shades of yellow, orange, purple and red flowers were evident in small landscape plots and along the split-face block walls throughout the prison grounds. The beautification is done by the prisoners; the inmate community even funds purchase of the flowers, Mooney said, a reflection of their desire to improve their surroundings.
"They live here," he said.
But it is still a prison. Looming above the flowers are rolls and rolls of razor wire, and 364 cameras capture every moment from when a prisoner exits his cell until he returns. That video can be reviewed when there is an incident where force is required, Mooney said.
Care, religion, education
The prison, for which construction was completed in 1992, is a city within a city, where virtually every need is met, from a barbershop to full-scale hospital services.
"If they need it, they get it," Mooney said of inmate care.
The prison could be self-sufficient for three months should an emergency occur, he said.
Also, SCI-Coal Township accommodates 11 religions. The chapel is a "very busy place," Mooney said.
Education and training are serious functions, the goal being to give inmates marketable skills that will allow them to become contributing members of society upon their release. Mooney noted a ceremony is planned today for 116 graduates of the GED program and building trades courses.
Mooney introduced and complimented his executive staff, giving particular attention to his assistant, Trisha Kelley, a Lourdes graduate who has risen through the ranks since she started at SCI-Coal Township even before inmates were there.
"And she's not done yet, I can guarantee you that," Mooney said of Kelley's ascension in the Department of Corrections.
Mooney said his goal is to be sure SCI-Coal Township is a safe and humane place for both staff, which number more than 500, and inmates.
On the tour, he made it a point to stop at an area outside one of the cafeteria entrances where an incident Aug. 14, 1995, resulted in some staff and inmates suffering serious injuries. "More than a few lives" were affected forever, said Mooney, who had responded from his job at another SCI facility that day, arriving 2 1/2 hours after the incident began but still finding it "very, very bone-chilling."
The location is a reminder to staff "of what we potentially have to deal with on a daily basis," he said.