Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Prison Society (PPS)

Budget

$1,400,000 (2022)

Staffing

10 full-time staff members; 2 part-time; extensive use of volunteers

  • The Pennsylvania Prison Society has a core professional staff that manages operations. Most prison visits are carried out by a network of roughly 300 trained volunteers.

State Prison Profile

Pennsylvania has 23 state prison facilities subject to PPS oversight and incarcerates approximately 48,000 people in state prisons. The state prison system is run by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC). 

Authority

Pennsylvania Statutes Title 31, Chapter 35, Subchapter B, Sections 3511-1514

  • Facility Access: “Authorized members of the Pennsylvania Prison Society” are included in the category of “official visitors,” giving them access to any state prison facility during working hours, seven days a week, and limiting the reasons for which they can be denied entry to a facility.
  • Private Interviews: As official visitors, PPS representatives can privately interview “any inmate confined in any correctional facility.”
  • Local Jail Oversight: PPS also conducts oversight of Pennsylvania’s local jails (also called “prisons”)

Activities

PPS works to increase transparency and humanity in Pennsylvania prisons by coordinating volunteer visits to respond to complaints and concerns, proactively monitoring prisons, educating the public and lawmakers about prison conditions, and providing services, including a family support hotline and mentoring programs.

  • Volunteer Visits: PPS volunteers visit PADOC facilities in response to complaints or concerns raised by incarcerated individuals or other stakeholders. In 2022, PPS received roughly 250 letters and 650 calls a month. Most concerns are addressed at the point of contact, with roughly 1/5 of contacts resulting in a prison visit. PPS conducted about 2,000 official visits in 2022. Visits are conducted by 300 trained volunteer monitors, who are organized into chapters across the state. When volunteers visit facilities, they meet one-on-one with incarcerated individuals to discuss concerns. PPS then brings those concerns to prison staff or outside stakeholders to advocate for solutions. 
  • Proactive Monitoring: PPS started piloting a proactive monitoring program in spring 2021. PPS staff conduct walkthroughs of PADOC facilities to flag potential issues and conduct structured interviews with a random cross-section of incarcerated individuals. In 2022, PPS conducted 27 walkthroughs. PPS also uses surveys sent to incarcerated individuals to proactively collect and track concerns on specific, targeted issues like meal service or family visits. 
  • Support Services: PPS provides a set of services to support incarcerated people and their families. For example, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, PPS ran a heavily subsidized bus service from Philadelphia to almost all prisons across the state to facilitate family visits. PPS also runs a mentorship program for men who are returning to Philadelphia from incarceration and maintains a family support line, which family members of incarcerated individuals can call to get information on facilities, policies, and general questions, as well as direct support.
  • Education and Advocacy: PPS uses its insight into prison conditions to help keep the public and policymakers well-informed about corrections issues. In 2021, PPS added a dedicated staff position for this work. 

Reports

Annual Reports; Monitoring Reports on specific facilities; Survey Reports. Publicly available here.

  • Monitoring Reports, Survey Reports: Monitoring reports about specific facilities are a product of PPS’s proactive monitoring and highlight facilities with particularly concerning conditions. As part of the same monitoring work, PPS has also conducted large-scale surveys on issues such as COVID-19 conditions and dining halls. Reports based on these visits and survey results are publicly available. 
  • PPS does not generate publicly available reports from its volunteer visits in response to complaints, which are the organization’s main activity.

Organizational History

PPS was founded in 1787 in response to inhumane conditions in Philadelphia’s Walnut Street jail and the practice of public labor as a punishment for incarcerated people. From the organization’s inception, PPS volunteers visited prisons and advocated for prison reform. In 1829, the Pennsylvania Legislature granted PPS official access to all prison facilities in the state. Today, PPS continues to visit county and state prisons across Pennsylvania, support incarcerated individuals and their families, and advocate for safer and more humane prisons.

Special Note

PPS is one of only three non-governmental prison oversight organizations in the United States, along with the Correctional Association of New York and the John Howard Association of Illinois.