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Redemption at SCI Coal Township

SCI Coal Township
Erica L. Shames
SCI Coal Township

A note to readers: This is the third in a series of articles about TriumpH and LifeLine, two social service organizations operated by inmates at SCI Coal Township. Audio recorders are not allowed inside the prison, so you will not hear the voices of inmates in the audio segment. And, for the protection of victims, only the first names of inmates are used.

The barbed wire fence surrounding State Correctional Institution (SCI) Coal Township distorts the acts of goodness taking place inside. Nearly 400 of the 1,774 inmates at the medium-security state prison have earned the right to participate in TriumpH and LifeLine. The social service organizations are run and supported by inmates to benefit nonprofit groups in nearby communities and beyond.

The act of giving back, the inmates say, serves as a vehicle for education, recovery, and redemption—a privilege they must earn with their ongoing exemplary behavior.

“When you find it in your heart to take responsibility for the harm you caused, you see the importance of giving back,” explained Nyako, vice president, LifeLine.

Breaking the mold

TriumpH (Teamwork, Respect, Integrity, Unity, Morals, Pride, and Honesty) was started at SCI Coal Township in 1995 to “promote positive interactions, opportunities for self-improvement, social responsibility, and community service.” LifeLine, a program for inmates serving sentences of 10 years to life, was started in 2016 for many of the same reasons.

Several institutions have inmate organizations, says SCI Coal Township Superintendent Tom McGinley, but TriumpH and LifeLine go beyond.

“Generally speaking, there’s no organizations like this in the state that have donated more monies to community resources than the two organizations within this one,” said McGinley. “So that’s what makes me very proud of them."

“When you hear of corrections, there’s a negative connotation to that,” he added. “We’ve broken the mold on that. We have a very, very positive culture inside this facility. We want to make them a better individual than when they came in. To have them go back into the community with some resources that they could succeed, and knowing that they’ve had a positive impact on the community even before they get there, means a lot.”

Facilitating positive growth

SCI Coal Township, like most prisons, offers vocational classes imparting skills ranging from HVAC, woodworking, barber, computer-aided drafting/design, automotive, custodial maintenance NCCER, OSHA 10, and a flaggers course. Inmates can earn their GED and even industry-recognized certifications specific to the trade skills they
acquire. But the learning does not end there. McGinley has encouraged a mentality of philanthropy and recovery at the prison, which results in a top-down shift in culture and attitude.

“Safety and security are number one,” affirms McGinley of his priorities as superintendent. “But, also, having the opportunity to allow individuals to redeem themselves. And you can’t do that without opportunity. It’s trying to make that conducive environment where you can say, at the end of the day, we all walk out of here safe and sound, and we had personal growth inside these walls—that means it’s a successful day for me.”

TriumpH was already established when McGinley arrived at SCI Coal Township in 1997 as corrections activities specialist. A promotion in 2012 took him to SCI Muncy, where he assumed the role of corrections classification program manager. A promotion to
superintendent brought McGinley back to the Coal Township facility in 2016.

Newly gained insight from his work with women at Muncy inspired him to expand benevolent opportunities and attitudes. At Muncy, McGinley had been introduced to the Bucknell Institute of Lifelong Learning (BILL) course Inside/Out. One of his first priorities was to bring the course to SCI Coal Township. Originally designed for undergraduates, and expanded to universities like Bucknell and other settings around the country and the world, the course is based on the Inside/Out model created at Temple University in 1997. It brings together campus-based students with incarcerated students for a semester-long course held in a prison, jail or other correctional setting toward the goal of facilitating dialogue across differences.

“I thought I knew corrections,” said McGinley. “At Muncy I realized the mental health component in corrections. Seventy-eight percent of the women are on psychotropic medications because of the trauma they have been through. My grandmother said, everyone has a story. You get to the point where you have to start realizing why that
story came to be and how are we going to fix that.”

When McGinley returned to Coal Township as superintendent, he brought something else with him—empathy.

“I don’t believe in the old adage of lock ‘em up and throw away the key,” he said. “You want individuals treated with respect, number one. And we understand there are victims, and our heart goes out to victims. The judicial system has gotten [the inmates] to this point, not to throw lives away but to better lives. And that’s what corrections is supposed to be. Correcting behavior, not continuing to punish. I think we’ve done an effective job of that here.”

How it goes

Giving back, atonement, and transformation are all large parts of the healing work that occurs at SCI Coal Township. The focus on philanthropy underscores those goals. Since 2020, TriumpH and LifeLine have donated nearly $200,000 to over 50 nonprofit
organizations in Pennsylvania and nationwide. These include Transitions of PA, Big Brothers, Big Sisters (Sunbury), America Gold Star (Washington, D.C.), Pennsylvania Prison Society (Philadelphia), Northumberland County Fire Departments, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and UPMC Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh—to name just a few.

“It’s important to build connections with the community we hope to return to,” said Thomas, secretary, LifeLine. “It’s not just about righting wrongs. We get excited for opportunities to live in accordance with our transformed selves, and to see the good we
do. It encourages us to do more.”

To fund charitable giving, TriumpH and LifeLine members raise money through sales of everything from sneakers and nuts to hero sandwiches and vitamins—items not typically available in the prison commissary. Inmates purchase the items using money they earn from their inmate job details and funds placed in their account by family and friends via JPay, a financial services company used by the prison system.

Byron Lawrence, director of ways and means for LifeLine, handles the logistics of the organization’s fundraisers.

“The goal is to sell something that is in alignment with what the inmates want and what they are allowed to have,” he said. “I’ve been in prison for 27 years. I haven’t had a Dunkin’ Donut – that made a good fundraiser.”

In detail

One of the biggest recipients of funding from TriumpH and LifeLine is Kaupas Summer Camp ($19,000). Every June, Mount Carmel Area Junior High students visit Bucknell University to take part in academic and athletic activities.

“This is an important program for disadvantaged students who would probably never see a college campus otherwise, if it wasn’t for the inmates and their donation,” said McGinley. “Last year, 80 kids were involved. They get to see Bucknell’s campus and realize there’s a lot more out there for me, a lot more positive things I’m not seeing. If
that can change the trajectory of lives, that’s what we’re looking for. I tell the inmates and my own kids this, ‘The biggest gamble in life is the circumstances you’re born into.”

Other major donations have been made to St. Joseph Center ($10,500), the Greater Susquehanna Valley United Way ($8,000), The Gate House homeless shelter in Danville ($7,500), and Big Impact Group, a youth mentoring organization in Schuylkill Haven ($10,500).

“Historically, people who are incarcerated have a stigma because we made poor choices,” said Nyako. “We want to show that we’ve changed. We’d like to be received and regarded as humans.”

“We see it on the news,” added Draye. “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key. We made bad decisions. We came into a place like this; the idea is to work on ourselves. We don’t have to die in here.”

A turnaround

Nyako’s story sheds light on the transformation that can occur at SCI Coal Township, even outside of LifeLine and TriumpH. Now 33, Nyako was arrested at age 19, and sentenced to life in prison for second degree murder. As co-founder of the Abolitionist Reading Circle, and a member of Human Rights Coalition, Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, and LifeLine, he considers himself an activist, organizer, writer, and champion for justice.

In 2021, he co-authored the book, Weology: Transformative Justice in Practice, with inmates Qu’eed, Avron, and Dawud. The writers shared their insights about the importance of transformative justice, how they are using transformative and restorative practices in the confines of prison, and how their own personal journeys led them to this approach.

Nyako admits to falling into a state of victimhood, despite being a survivor and perpetrator of violence, which he used to justify acts of violence against others, even in prison. He lauds Dawud for teaching him how to use accountability as a primary value in his life.

“As we continue to transform ourselves and each other,” Nyako writes in the book, “we decrease the chances of further harm taking place; we help each other become accountable to the people and communities we harmed, and we become accountable to ourselves which contributes to the overall concept of achieving justice and creating a just society.”

Further positive change is achieved through the prison mentoring program, Dare-2-Care, which is available to every inmate, but particularly targets youth entering the prison. Dawud encouraged Nyako to participate in the 12-week program several years
after he was incarcerated.

“I was a bit reluctant,” wrote Nyako in the book. “The first topic we discussed was character. After the initial awkwardness, we all became involved. Before long, all of us in that room had forgotten about our personas. We forgot about being ‘ganstas’ or hustlers, Bloods or Crips; we just engaged in a powerful exchange of ideas, experiences, and perspectives. Ultimately, we banded together and created a mutual understanding and respect for each other that spilled out of the room. Dare-2-Care is a safe haven where people can come in and speak their mind and be vulnerable to help each other with problems. What do we need to learn to be a friend, a confidante, a good comrade?”

Nyako has since evolved into a Dare-2-Care facilitator. “Being a facilitator has precipitated my growth and healing,” he shared. “I am constantly learning more about myself and others, and working with my comrades to develop strategies for transformation and healing in this complex, traumatic environment.”

“We don’t want to see people follow in our footsteps,” adds Draye. “We mentor young guys who come in, showing them the way, and to avoid the mistakes I made that set me back.”

Another way TriumpH and LifeLine members atone for their criminal actions is through their work with Office of Victim Advocates (OVA). According to Superintendent McGinley, OVA provides input on where money raised could be donated to ease the suffering of victims, and the inmates help organize an annual Day of Responsibility highlighting the impact of crime.

“Our involvement with OVA is to make sure we understand the crime and its impact within victim’s families and our families,” said Timothy, the treasurer of LifeLine. “We want to get educated, and deal with our mental and emotional state, to achieve a complete balance, and be helpful to the communities around us. We are looking for a second chance.”

Pinpointing need

From inside the prison, it’s a challenge to learn where community need is the greatest. One conduit is the BILL Inside/Out course. Recently, a problem facing the Salvation Army’s community garden in Williamsport was revealed through the course.

“We were told about a problem—without a greenhouse, it’s not possible to grow food year-round for the people who need it—from Inside/Out student Sid Furst,” explained Evan, president, LifeLine. “From that conversation, members of TriumpH got together and put together a proposal [for Superintendent McGinley] which was approved.”

Together, LifeLine and TriumpH donated $4,000 to Rachel’s Garden in February 2024. Other opportunities for information gathering are created by community members. Last September, Cassandra Catino, treatment director at Applegate Recovery, met with members of TriumpH and LifeLine executive committees to discuss the most effective way to identify and fund organizations to achieve the greatest good. The Local Community Matter Town Hall Meeting in May was a first step toward achieving that outcome.

“If we could all get on the same page about one common goal, we could actually do great things in this area,” Catino said.

Draye regarded the meeting as a unique way to gather input from the community.

“We’re incarcerated,” he said. “We need help identifying what these groups need to succeed.”

How to get funded

Special Olympics Pennsylvania, which provides year-round training and competition in a variety of Olympic sports for children and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities, has received funding from TriumpH and LifeLine at varying levels since 2019. Swimming head coach Arden Miller, whose daughter Amanda is a Special Olympics equestrian, has been involved in Special Olympics for 20 years. She learned about TriumpH and LifeLine’s generosity through an article in the local newspaper.

“I didn’t know what they would think of our program,” said Miller. “But I wrote a letter to Mr. McGinley and he passed it on to the people involved with LifeLine and TriumpH. We got notified that they wanted to donate to us. The amount varies each year; this year it was very generous--$2,000!”

The TriumpH and LifeLine charitable donation to Special Olympics PA is presented to Coach Arden Miller (center). (L to R): Michael Menapace, Corrections Counselor; Thomas McGinley, SCI Coal Twp Superintendent; Jaden McGuigan, Special Olympics swimmer; Coach Miller; Paul Randell, Corrections Activities Specialist and staff advisor to LifeLine; and Blake Panko, Corrections Activities Specialist and staff advisor to TriumpH.
Amy Wheary
The TriumpH and LifeLine charitable donation to Special Olympics PA is presented to Coach Arden Miller (center). (L to R): Michael Menapace, Corrections Counselor; Thomas McGinley, SCI Coal Twp Superintendent; Jaden McGuigan, Special Olympics swimmer; Coach Miller; Paul Randell, Corrections Activities Specialist and staff advisor to LifeLine; and Blake Panko, Corrections Activities Specialist and staff advisor to TriumpH.

As with all requests, LifeLine and TriumpH executive committees meet periodically to discuss the funding requests and fundraising ideas with the general membership and staff to determine what fits into the scope of their policies. Sometimes, as in the case of Special Olympics, the cause is near and dear to inmates. Evan, whose niece has cerebral palsy, was particularly interested in helping to fund Special Olympics.

“Swimming is a passion for her, but I saw she was afraid when other swimmers splashed water on her,” said Evan. “So I figured out a game to make her less afraid by splashing water together. It allowed her to become more at ease at the pool.”

A pat on the back

In June (TriumpH) and August (LifeLine) organization members are rewarded for their good behavior and philanthropic work at a banquet held in their honor.

“The banquet is an incentive for being in the organization,” explained Blake Panko, corrections activities specialist and staff advisor to TriumpH. “Inmates are allowed to invite up to three family members to participate. During the event, a play is performed by inmates, food is offered, speeches are made, and some charitable donations are
announced.”

Forward progress

Although prisons are often regarded as places to simply warehouse criminals, SCI Coal Township is an example of the positive growth and change inmates can accomplish under the right guidance and circumstances.

“I remember driving up here for the first time and seeing razor wire around the facility,” McGinley recalled of his first visit to SCI Coal Township shortly after college graduation. “And I got knots in my stomach. But I came in and took the interview and [coming here
to work] was the best decision I ever made. It’s been not only positive growth for SCI Coal Township. It’s been positive growth for me, too."

“I’ve been very lucky” continues McGinley. “I was born to two loving parents, a nuclear family, and a loving structure. “Some of these gentlemen, in fact most of them, never had that opportunity, and faced dysfunction from the beginning. It’s our mission to get
them back on solid ground so they can be positive [forces] in the community.”

Erica Shames is the emeritus founder and publisher of Susquehanna Life magazine, Central Pennsylvania’s original lifestyle publication.