Reading Eagle: Forum airs impact of high incarceration rate

Article on incarceration from the Reading Eagle

Forum airs impact of high incarceration rate

Sunday May 4, 2014 12:01 AM

Put a lot of people in prison and you affect a lot of kids.

That was one sentiment shared Saturday afternoon during a panel discussion in Reading that focused on disruption and economic pain caused by the historically high incarceration rate in Pennsylvania's state prison system.

"I love my daddy," said Gordon Diem, a staffer at Berks-based New Person Ministries, putting words to the thought process of the child of an inmate. "It must be OK to be in prison."

Diem and others on the panel spoke as part of a "teach-in" put together by Decarcerate PA, which describes itself as a grassroots campaign to end mass incarceration in Pennsylvania. At the end of 2013, there were 51,512 inmates in the state prison system, more than six times the roughly 8,000 inmates in the system in 1980.

Making prison seem more acceptable to children was only one of the social learning impacts outlined by the panel. Diem said every incarceration affects aunts, uncles and others in the inmate's extended family, not just spouses and children.

"That family becomes broken," Diem said.

Diem was joined on the panel by James Young, chairman of the criminal services committee of the Reading Chapter of the NAACP, Larry Berringer, executive director of the Berks Community Action Program, and Dr. Rita Shah, an assistant professor of sociology at Elizabethtown College.

Shah said the U.S. incarcerates more people per 100,000 population than any other country in the world. She said a disproportionately large number of inmates were "black or brown" in skin color.

 "We are literally decimating communities," she said.

State Sen. Judy Schwank, a Ruscombmanor Township Democrat, attended the gathering held at Holy Cross United Methodist Church on North Fifth Street.

She said there was a movement underway among state lawmakers to tackle issues related to mass incarceration. Sadly, she said, the momentum was probably being generated by the cost of running prisons, rather than compassion.
 
"It is long past time for a change," she said.
Pennsylvania has 26 prisons. Decarcerate, based in Philadelphia, wants to end prison expansion, decrease the prison population and redirect money toward education, social programs and other community-building efforts.

Contact Ford Turner: 610-371-5037 or fturner@readingeagle.com.