In the 19 years and seven months that Jim Marren spent behind bars following a conviction for marijuana distribution, he was shuffled from one federal penitentiary to another.
But for much of the time, one thing was consistent for Mr. Marren: He received regular visits from volunteers with the nonprofit Prisoner Visitation and Support (PVS). He recalls visitors Joe and Gene, among others, and their conversations about everything from books and music to current events and daily routines.
“I looked at these visitors as people who I could depend upon to give me a true view of the outside world,” Marren says. “They allowed me to feel as if I was a part of the outside world. They shared everything – family, highs and lows.”
Marren is one of countless thousands who have had a listening ear behind bars because of the Philadelphia-based PVS, which is marking a half-century of service. The nonprofit manages a force of volunteers scattered across the United States and provides regular visits to at least 2,000 inmates a month across 122 federal institutions and six military prisons.
“The purpose is to visit people in prison who are having a terrible time,” says PVS's executive director, Steve Gotzler. “We have no interest [in] whether they are guilty or innocent or anything like that – just to treat them like humans.”
From the Vietnam War era
The nonprofit was founded in 1968 to continue a Quaker tradition of caring for prisoners. It began with the mission of visiting conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War, but organizers realized the service could benefit a broader population. The Federal Bureau of Prisons granted the organization access to all federal institutions in 1972, and the Department of Defense did the same in 1975 for military prisons. According to the nonprofit, it remains the only interfaith, volunteer visitation program with access to all these facilities.
The organization’s priority is to visit prisoners who don’t usually receive visits from family and friends, as well as those who are in solitary confinement, on death row, or serving long sentences. The objective behind the visits is to give inmates regular contact from the outside world both to help them cope with prison life and to prepare them for successful reentry.
“Most people are going to get back out of prison someday,” Mr. Gotzler says. “The more connection they have to the outside world before they get out, the more likely it is that they are going to be useful when they get out, and not reoffend and be a burden on society.”
Like Marren, Gotzler served time in federal prison, after a felony conviction for nonviolent drug and conspiracy charges. He spent about seven years behind bars, during which he earned a degree from the University of Wisconsin and taught GED classes – something he still does.
Gotzler was unexpectedly paroled in his early 40s, and he found himself searching for a successful reentry. He was encouraged by two fellow inmates – a lawyer and a former judge – to consider law school, and within three weeks of his release, he began attending law school at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J.
While in school, he joined the National Lawyers Guild and was at one point a national officer. He also helped in the early stages of The November Coalition, an organization of inmates and families lobbying to change the nation’s drug laws.
He later worked for the Public Interest Law Center and then for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He next moved to the Pennsylvania Prison Society, where he designed and launched a successful mentoring program for men nearing release from state prisons. After a few years there, he took his leadership role with PVS about a year ago.
In a recent interview at the nonprofit’s office, Gotzler spoke about the importance of inmates receiving visitors.
“Prison life is a very strange place. It is extremely regimented; it is cold and isolating,” he says. “The visit connects them to the greater sea of humanity. They are running across normal everyday people who have jobs, drive cars, [and] have problems.”
He also notes the modeling that can result when prisoners see how the visitors live their lives – which is important, he says, because many in prison didn’t have a normal upbringing.
Generally, each visit lasts for about an hour, and there is no set agenda or list of topics. A volunteer will keep visiting a prisoner as long as the inmate is at the same institution and wishes to continue, Gotzler says. But the relationship continues only during the prisoner’s stay at that institution.
Gotzler says there is no shortage of need among inmates for visitation, particularly in the federal system. Prisoners can be assigned to any institution without regard to where they are from, and the fact that most facilities are in rather remote locations makes it difficult for family and friends to stay in touch, especially considering the long length of many sentences.
For inmates who don’t receive many – or any – visitors, a PVS volunteer can make all the difference. And that’s why Gotzler says so many dedicated volunteers stick with the organization.
“It is amazingly fulfilling on an individual level. You can see the difference that you are making in somebody’s life,” he says.
PVS has three staff members and some 500 volunteers who contribute one day a month to visiting prisoners. The nonprofit is highly selective in choosing volunteers and provides intensive training.
With an annual budget of just under $300,000, which comes from small donations from individuals as well as support from some faith groups, the organization is dependent upon its volunteers. Gotzler says additional staff will eventually be necessary to manage the network of visitors, especially given the waiting list of inmates and the ever-present need for more volunteers.
John Vanyur, who spent nine years on the nonprofit’s board, worked in the prison system, culminating as assistant director of correctional programs for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. His first exposure to PVS came when he was an associate warden, and he saw firsthand the benefits of visits.
“PVS really provides a listening ear to [prisoners], and also a connection to the outside world. And a visitor – no matter where they are – [is] somebody who they can speak with and interact with,” Mr. Vanyur says.
He cites research studies that have found lower recidivism rates among inmates who receive frequent visits while behind bars. “There is actually some evidence that visiting has an impact on reentry,” he says.
Beyond the “instant payoff” for both visitors and prisoners, he adds, the program doesn’t cost anything to the prison system, another benefit in the eyes of prison administrators.
Since receiving visits from PVS volunteers during his time behind bars, Marren has remained engaged with the nonprofit, now serving on its board of directors. He says Gotzler has an “extremely good reputation” and speaks highly of his qualifications to lead the organization.
“Steve is an attorney and he understands the prison system,” Marren says.
He also notes that Gotzler’s work with the Pennsylvania Prison Society, helping those reentering society find jobs and housing, appealed to the board. “It has brought a synergy between the Prison Society and our organization,” he adds.
‘A natural mentor and leader’
Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, hired Gotzler in 2005, something she describes as “a great decision.”
“He is a natural mentor and leader,” says Ms. Roper in an email interview. “Over the nearly ten years that he worked with us, he inspired hundreds of young people and helped them figure out their life’s direction.”
Roper isn’t surprised that Gotzler has spent his time after prison focusing on social justice, and she praises his work as a reentry mentor, which he does as part of a volunteer program he runs out of a state prison in Chester, Pa.
“When he is helping someone, Steve has more patience and good humor than anyone else you could find. He is non-judgmental and believes that every person has a best side, and wants to bring that out,” she says. “For Steve, helping people is like breathing. I don’t think he could stop if he wanted to.”
She adds, “He has changed innumerable lives – helping people find their ambitions and pursue them.”
Gotzler and his wife also serve as foster parents, frequently for children whose parents are incarcerated. They are currently fostering a girl whose mother is behind bars facing murder charges.
Not surprisingly, he easily finds the energy to further the work of PVS.
“From my point of view, these are the people in the worst situation of their lives: They are broke and friendless, living a pretty rancid life,” he says. “If you can help, you should help. It just feels like the right thing to do.”
• For more, visit prisonervisitation.org.
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