This conversation is the sixth in the series, Trench Democracy: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places. Innovative democratic professionals are recreating some of our most fundamental institutions, shaping new democratic practices and struggling against the sometimes profoundly counter-democratic tendencies of contemporary American institutions. While their work is always in progress, their experiences hold value for anyone interested in democracy’s future. 

William DiMascio, until recently the executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, has organized deliberative forums involving visitors and inmates in every prison in the state. These forums involve moderated small-group dialogue about current issues such as social security, health care policy, and school violence. I talked with DiMascio recently about why democratic dialogue is valuable for inmates and how it can lower some of the barriers between prison communities and the public. First, let us begin with Bill’s account of a recent prison forum.

Prison Inmates Deliberate about Life and Death Decisions

In the spring of 2013, we held a deliberative forum training session at the State Correctional Institute at Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. We trained eight prisoners with life sentences and eight outside guests—a professor and students from Juniata College and four members of the Prison Society. Our intention was manifold: first, to get forums going in the prison; second, to have our chapter trained so they could help reluctant prison administrators to see the interest and value in permitting the forums to take place; and third, to stimulate interest in public deliberation on the campus.

On the first day of training, we used the National Issues Forums book, a nonpartisan publication, to discuss how to stop mass shootings in our communities. The next day, with an expanded group of participants, including twelve prisoners with life sentences, we used an NIF book on life and death decisions, covering end-of-life issues in hospitals and clinics. Some interesting questions arise from this: Should prisoners have a right to choose when to die via a living will? Should they be asked to decide the fate of terminally ill family members on the outside who may reach the point where a call must be made?

As prisoners, the most difficult part of these forums was the decision making. Prisoners don’t make decisions on anything; they are told what to do and when. So, this book is especially challenging. The most common concern among the men, who had all been convicted of homicides, is the belief that death was God’s prerogative! Virtually no one wanted to make the call on when to “pull the plug.” Cost was not a factor in their thinking about end-of-life treatment, as you might guess these folks weren’t accustomed to paying for anything. But many said their religion prevented them from calling this shot. Actually, I think they may have used that as an excuse to avoid having to make a decision as heavy as this.

In the end, the group decided to see if they would be permitted to develop living wills for the lifers. The state does have a hospice prison although most inmates are reluctant to go there.

This was a fascinating forum. This stuff is not about esoterica; it is about life.

Albert Dzur: Why have you devoted as much time and effort as you have to criminal justice?

William DiMascio: As an executive director of a prison society, just recently retired, I have been very much involved in the criminal justice system for the past 25 years. I have had a unique vantage point, in that the prison society had legislative authority to visit all the state or county prisons and jails in Pennsylvania, meaning that we did not have to be on anybody’s visitors list. In fact, there was a law called the “Official Visitation of Prisons Act” adopted by Pennsylvania’s General Assembly in the middle of the nineteenth century which named the prison society and said that its members, along with the governor, judges, and members of the legislature, were empowered to visit all these facilities seven days a week between the hours of 9 and 5. Society members could not be denied a visit unless there was a formally declared riot.

My work in the prison was very hands on, meeting with prisoners and prison administrators as well as legislators and others in the policymaking world. Through the years and all the different experiences, I have gotten a pretty well-rounded look at the whole system. So why do I care about criminal justice? I care about governance generally and I think this is ground zero for good government. When you talk about criminal justice you talk about how well we are treating our people. You talk about issues of equity and fairness—these issues have always been important to me. In criminal justice, you see the ragged edge of government. We ask prisoners to take responsibility for their misdeeds, but it is rare that we ask our elected or appointed leaders to take responsibility for their failings.

AD: You are a journalist by training. Have you thought about what non-lawyers can contribute to the criminal justice process?

WD: Oh, absolutely. I think that—painting with a broad brush here—lawyers are to some extent handicapped in their ties to what is legal. And not necessarily what is fair, moral, or more appropriate. What the legislature says is illegal is all that matters for a lawyer.

Whereas, as a journalist I have a much broader perspective and I am not wedded to the legislature. In fact, I covered the legislature in Pennsylvania when I was a reporter and got a good look at what drives them to do what they do and it is not always all that wonderful. Criminal justice really needs to have intelligent people, professional people of every ilk examining it and becoming knowledgeable about it.

Prisoners have a thirst to be heard, to feel like people are interested in hearing what their opinions are. And this is something they are deprived of while in prison.

AD: Is there a limit to what people trained in a specific profession can see?

WD: What they do see, not what they can see. We all blind ourselves to some extent based on our interests and training. It is hard to keep a totally open mind. In the legal profession you have many different shades: you have defense lawyers as well as prosecutors, and you have people on all different sides of the issue.

This is the conclusion I am coming to after my years working in the trenches: the system we have, which has evolved over many years, is truly a failed system. It is not going to work well as a part of the government until we face a very distinct reality: we cannot have a system of criminal justice that is rooted in punitive measures. We need a more therapeutic approach to crime. Putting somebody away may make you feel like you have gotten your pound of flesh, but if that is all you are doing, those folks wind up going back to prison over and over again. They drive up not only the cost that we have to pay in order to punish them, but also the toll they take by going back out into the community, having been incarcerated and having been so ostracized that they cannot find a decent job. Once they do get out, they are forever stigmatized in a way that makes it almost impossible for them to live a good and law-abiding life. We know this, but we are so caught up in our penchant to punish that we do not really think much farther and it is unfortunate. We would begin to see things differently if we started getting more people from the public health community, for example, more deeply involved in criminal justice.

When most lawyers meet with their clients, they talk about legal strategies, but they do not really get down in the trenches and talk with very many people who are in prison. That is where you start to hear about the stories of these folks and the trauma that they have experienced. There was a woman at Muncie, one of the state prisons for women in Pennsylvania, who at the age of 13, mentally retarded, and just released from a mental hospital came back home to a very poor neighborhood in Chester. She wound up setting fire to a house while playing, killing two people who were sleeping in the house at the time. So at that very tender age she was sentenced to life in prison. And in Pennsylvania all life sentences are actual life—there is not 25 to life or anything of the sort. Life is life. She is still there in prison. She is probably about 60 now. She has multiple sclerosis. When she first went into prison in Muncie, she was about 15. She was raped by a prison guard, got pregnant and had a baby which of course was then taken away from her. And now she has MS and she is applying for commutation of her sentence. I talked to her and I said, “What would you do?” I did not even think I could support commutation for her because I do not know how she could even live. She spent all these years of her life having someone take care of her, having the prison system take care of her. She said, “Oh I can get a job at McDonald’s.” But she could not even stand up for very long. There are so many cases like that. I am not saying that people should not be held accountable for what they do. But I think that if you have a system of justice that is not blended somehow with some measure of compassion or mercy then what you have is vengeance.

AD: I am interested in the dialogues you have conducted in prisons. Last spring, for example, you organized a National Issues Forum at the State Correctional Institute in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. Can you describe what you did there?

WD: Well if you know anything about life in prison, aside from what you see on Oz or in the movies, you know it is, day in and day out, a pretty dismal and boring existence—one that really dehumanizes everybody who is there. I have always been taken by the fact that in visiting with different inmates I met some positively brilliant minds. And yet they live in this intellectual wasteland. It occurred to me that it would be good to bring National Issues Forums events in to the prisons and invite prisoners to engage in these discussion groups. And we did that and actually got a small grant from the state to conduct them.

We wanted a group of ten to twenty prisoners we could work with over a period of three days and do moderator training. We went to every prison and we did this.

AD: Every prison in Pennsylvania?

WD: Every prison, yes. There were around twenty-seven prisons. My thinking was if we can train the moderators, then they would be able to start having these discussion groups with other groups of inmates. It did not work out. We did the training. These forums were marvelous, they were really great. But as soon as we left, the prisons went back to being prisons and they were not allowed to do conduct the dialogues.

AD: That was the first round, about ten years ago, and then you tried it again this last spring?

WD: This last spring there were people who had been involved in that earlier group—lifers who had gone from one prison to another. One of the guys we had trained elsewhere is now at Huntingdon, where the lifer group has an organization. This group wanted to do something for their folks to stimulate some intellectual activity so they wanted us to come in and do this training at Huntingdon. We did not attempt to go around the state. Our prison society chapter, which sends visitors there at least once a month, was a part of the training group too because my hope is they can get the administration to support the prisoners having this regularly. This is a great thing to do anywhere but its just wheel-spinning unless you get the administration to support it.

AD: We have talked about the process of organizing a group dialogue in a prison. Let’s talk a little bit about the value of it. What is the point of doing public deliberation in a prison setting?

WD: I have run into people outside who went through that training. I am thinking in particular of one individual I ran into in Chester who had gone through the program we set up. I was doing a presentation and he came up to me afterwards and said, “You know, I still use that training we had in the prison.” And I said, “What do you mean, how would you use that?” He said he was active in his community and he considered it to be a kind of leadership training and he has used that style of presentation and engagement with groups that he addresses.

It is important to understand that the second round of forums was requested by the inmates, in fact by one of the inmates who had done it before. So whatever was done did not just pass the time of day. It obviously had some impact on somebody who saw it as something they wanted to do.

AD: Did they say why they wanted to do it again?

WD: There is a thirst to be heard, to be relevant, to feel like people can engage with them, people are interested in hearing what their opinions are. And this is something they are deprived of, for the most part, while in prison. The steel bars and the big fences cannot prevent that quite natural human desire. So I think that is why they requested training again. My goal is to begin to bring marginalized men and women back into a society where their thoughts and feelings are heard.

AD: You have worked, too, with students from Drexel University who come into prisons and have discussion groups with prisoners.

WD: Yes. I have worked for a number of years with Dr. Julia Hall, who teaches criminal justice courses at Drexel. For a time, she would bring a class into Graterford prison every semester. She would work with prisoners who were heads of organizations like the lifers’ organization or the Jaycees or the Vietnam veterans’ organization—Graterford is one of the few prisons where they allow inmate organizations. She would invite the head inmate from each of those groups to come in and give a presentation to the students and then they would take a tour of the prison. After a while she began to feel like it was a pretty limited learning experience. So I mentioned to her that deliberative forums might be of interest and maybe we could do something. So we did. We would bring in her class of twenty to thirty students. And instead of just having the leaders we would round up a like amount of prisoners for a dialogue; so usually the groups would be about fifty to sixty people all together.

AD: That is a big group.

WD: It is a big group and it is somewhat awkward because in order to have a group that size we had to meet in the auditorium. We would have a big circle of folding chairs and the acoustics were awful so we had to use cumbersome microphones. We did the forums slightly differently because of the size of the group. We started by going around the room and everybody would introduce themselves. Then we would go into the choice work and we would break the group in three, so there would be around twenty people in each group. They would go through the small-group choice work and then come back and report to the full group. We would have a brief closing session. We were always in a little bit of a rush, but in the end I always insisted we go around in a circle once again and ask everybody what they gained from this discussion. So they all had a chance to come back and address the group at large. And we did that for a couple of years.

AD: What strikes you about the value of these discussions for the various parties involved?

WD: I think these had the potential to make a really profound impact. When we were doing that circuit of moderator training we would train fifteen to twenty guys in each prison. It was interesting because they did not know each other. I would go into the prison and meet with a group of prisoners and I always thought for some reason that they would all know each other. Well they very rarely did because they lived in different housing units and did not interact. When we brought the groups together, there was always a lot of suspicion. You could see it in their eyes when they were in the group that there was a wariness about what was going to happen: “Who are these folks? I’ve got to be careful of what I say and what I do.” That is always part of being incarcerated.

I recall an icebreaker we did once. It was one of these things where the first guy would say, A my name is Albert, and the second guy had to repeat the first guy’s name and then do his own name. By the time we got around the room it would be a rather long recitation. But what struck me was that by the time we had gotten halfway around the room, the guys in the front were helping to prompt the guys in the back who could not recall things. There was no sense of animus. It was all very friendly, kind, well-meaning and you could see the group start to just come together. It was remarkable.

If you have moments of trust in an environment where that does not generally exist, that is a good experience. And there were some guys who would get sent to the moderator training who did not want to be there, did not know anything about it, never would have volunteered, but their counselor would send them because they had to send somebody. I recall one guy who did not say a word and he was the last individual who was going to have to stand up and do some moderating. And this guy did not want to do it. He was just so uptight about having to talk to the group. And I thought we were going to have a real problem, but the group actually talked him through it. An amazing thing to watch. He struggled, but they were encouraging. So I think those things do matter.

AD: You have also organized “day of responsibility” events in prisons. What are those?

WD: Well the day of responsibility was part of a restorative justice program we had for about five or six years. The first one was up in Dallas, Pennsylvania. We asked that they invite people from the community who could speak to the harm caused by crime—the harm to the victim, certainly, but also to the community, to the families, to everyone who is perceived by being harmed. We had crime victims and community members come in to speak for fifteen or twenty minutes about their personal experiences. We had eighty to ninety prisoners seated in the audience at Dallas.

The most enduring aspect of the criminal justice system, from the perspective of an inmate, is that it is an attempt to take away their free will.

AD: These are large events.

WD: Yes, they put us in a gym. In fact, they locked us in the gym for the day. They even brought lunch in for everybody so we all got to eat together with the prisoners—it is very unusual that you would be able to do that.

The victim or the victim’s family member would talk about the impact of crime and then afterward we had an open discussion with the prisoners. They could ask questions of the presenter and make comments. Then, in between those events our restorative justice person who was serving as the facilitator for the event and was making notes would ask if people felt particularly impressed about something and invite discussion.

We also had a time during the day where we broke the group up into small groups of about ten people. Each one had a prison society member or a volunteer who would lead a small group discussion within the ten as a way of trying to encourage input from others who did not want to talk or ask a question in front of the whole group. It was a more informal and less intimidating forum for them.

We had a final event at the end of the day. One of the prisoners had drafted something called the prisoner’s pledge. It was an 8.5- by 11-inch typewritten page in relatively small type: “This is a promise that I am making to myself. Every day I want to look at this and remind myself that I have to take responsibility for my actions and I am making this pledge to myself to do this.” They would sign that page and they would ask one of the outsiders to witness it for them. So again it was an opportunity for us to enable folks to look inside themselves to address their own demons and try deal with them.

AD: Why is a day of responsibility needed? These are people who have been charged with an offense, gone before a judge, and received a prison sentence. Haven’t they already been held responsible?

WD: Well I have news for you: that is not happening. The most enduring aspect of the criminal justice system, from the perspective of an inmate, is that it is an attempt to take away their free will. And indeed that is what it does. And if you do not have a sense of free will because you cannot determine what you are going to do, when you are going to sleep, when you are going to eat, all these things, you cannot really have a sense of responsibility for yourself either.

We look at the criminal justice system and we think we have a court system that is going to find a person guilty who is guilty, but some do not necessarily believe they are guilty. In a lot of cases they are in denial. In some cases they really are not guilty, but it is also easy and very human to look for scapegoats too. “It wasn’t me. It wasn’t my fault. I just went along for a ride in the car and they got out and shot somebody—why am I going to jail?” To feel very much like you were done wrong by the system.

AD: I understand how the prison takes away free will. But in the court process, people have choices they can make as they move along. You are saying that those choices are more determined than one might think looking at it from the outside.

WD: Well what choices are you talking about?

AD: To go to trial, for example.

WD: Well, there are so many people in prison because they have been bulldozed by that very thing, that decision to go to trial or not go to trial, by plea bargaining, by the heat that is put on them by the prosecutor. If you look at the work of the Innocence Project, you find people who have confessed to murder who were innocent. We are seeing them being released from prison now left and right. You wonder, “Why would anybody confess to murder?” What is presented to them is they are either going to go to the electric chair if they do not say guilty or if they do they get life without parole. I know lots of people who were in that very situation and did accept a plea deal. If they had the money to buy more effective counsel they probably never would have gone to jail at all or might have gone for something much less—a five- to ten-year sentence.

AD: By “bulldoze,” do you mean charge stacking by the prosecutor, when going to trial seems like pretty risky thing for a defendant?

WD: Yes, they get told that if you do not accept this deal this is what is going to happen. A guy I consider a friend is one of the very few people to get their sentence commuted. He had been doing life without parole. He was driving around in a car with four guys looking for drug dealers they could hold up. They could not find the one dealer in particular they were looking for, so one of the guys said he knew where there was a speakeasy they could go rob. My friend liked to hold up drug dealers, but he did not want to get involved in this thing. So he refused and stayed in the car when they parked it around the corner. The other four guys went in, robbed the place, and as they were leaving one of the patrons stood up and made some noise. One of the guys shot him and he died.

So eventually the five of them are arrested and put on trial. My friend, who was in the car around the corner, was offered a deal—a ten- to twenty-year sentence—which he did not take because he figured he had refused to go along with the robbery and was not even there at the scene. He wound up getting convicted of a felony homicide charge and sentenced to life. Two of the other guys who were actually in on the robbery took the deal and got out in ten years but this guy served thirty-seven years.

This is just one of many cases I know of where people made bad choices because they did not have good counsel.

AD: Given where prisons are located and how they are constructed, people outside rarely see inmates, much less talk with them. Is this something you have tried to change through the days of responsibility and deliberative dialogues—to bring those two worlds a little closer together? You have stressed the value to the inmates and I wonder if there is a value to the public as well.

WD: Well I always like to believe that there is. That is what got me involved in these deliberative forums to begin with. I do not see any groundswell for reform at the moment, though.

AD: If these sorts of practices were more part of the daily life of a prison, they could go some distance towards bridging this huge gap between prisons and the general public.

WD: Absolutely. I believe that people would see what they do not seem to want to see if they would begin to accept responsibility for what our criminal justice system is doing. The failed system has cost untold millions of dollars. I do not think people realize generally that the system operates the way it does. People think the courts are doing their job. Well the courts are not, I do not think, really doing their job. There is a much more fundamental thing going on here that is being missed.

AD: What do you mean?

WD: The courts have allowed prosecutors to become the strong men in the system. You have prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges and the strong man is the prosecutor, clearly. He has the big budget and control over the charges. And the judge is up there saying, “OK, the ball went out of bounds.” That is all. He is like a linesman in a tennis match. So I do not think that the system is necessarily doing what most people think it should be doing.

You have victims who are so distraught because of the plea bargains that are permitted that allow somebody to get off. And you have the prisoners who see that system as a way of having been bludgeoned into accepting something that they really did not need to or want to accept. So I think it is a failed system. And, bottom line, the system’s cost many billions of dollars of national treasure not to mention the loss of intellectual capital, which is incalculable. On top of all that, we are destroying generations of citizens who live in marginalized segments of our society. Not just racial minorities, though they are certainly at the top of the list, but also the poor, the mentally ill, the emotionally afflicted, the undereducated. These are groups of people who deserve better.

“The people,” the general voting public, do not want to look at that, they do not want to be bothered. They do not want to see the poor, they do not want to see what is happening to people who have been traumatized by one thing or another and are responding in an off-putting way. And we are all too busy. We have our own families to raise and things to do and we do not want to get down and dirty. Who wants to live in an impoverished community?

They are the very ones who ultimately would have the power to change things. And they do not want to see it. How do you get them see? While we were doing those deliberative forums in the prisons, we were doing some of them on the outside too. But there is only so much you can do. And when we did them on the outside we would get groups of fifty, sixty, seventy people who worked through church groups and other organizations. But getting a big turnout of community members is a real challenge.

Research on this project was done in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.