Inside the Walls
Superintendent fosters better decision-making through prison exchange class
Walking through the walled-in world of the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Coal Township with Thomas McGinley is like walking through the 21 Club with Frank Sinatra back in the ’50s. He may be the superintendent of the prison rather than the “chairman of the board,” as Sinatra was called, but McGinley definitely is the man of the hour. From every direction, men in brown jumpsuits greet him. This one wants to check on the status of his appeal, this one wants McGinley to push along his request for a haircut, and another one just wants to shake his hand. A correctional professional for 21 years, Thomas McGinley has been the superintendent of SCI Coal Township for three of those years. Although his job involves a lot of paper processing, he’d much rather be out mingling with the men, hearing their stories and learning how he can make their lives better. He first encountered the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program when he worked at SCI Muncy. Following is an excerpted transcript of his conversation with Editor Sherri Kimmel.
Q: What do the inside students get out of the program?
They realize that those individuals [Bucknell students] who may have been born into families that invested in their education and their upbringing aren’t that much different in their thought processes. They just weren’t guided as effectively as the students from Bucknell. The students appreciate the intelligence of the inmates, but the [inside students’] life experiences are what is most impactful for the students at Bucknell.
Inside the Walls: Thomas McGinley
Photo: Dustin Fenstermacher
“I hope they will use the lessons from this coursework to guide their children and guide their own decision-making down the road.”
– Thomas McGinley
Q: What are you hoping the Bucknell students will get out of the class at SCI Coal Township?
At the end of the class I expect they will realize, “These are regular people who just made poor choices.” I hope they will use the lessons from this coursework to guide their children and guide their own decision-making down the road. Let’s face it, the Bucknell students are still in or just out of their teens. So there’s plenty of time for them to make a lot of decisions in their lives, and hopefully this guides them to a little better decision-making down the road.
Q: Why are there so many prisons in this part of Pennsylvania?
The coal region was a booming business back in the early 1900s to 1940s, 1950s. It really started to decrease in the 1960s and ’70s, to where it’s really nowhere near what it used to be. Once the mines and the coal business started to basically not exist anymore, simultaneously you had a prison population boom. Legislators in Harrisburg realized, “Hey, we need some type of economic shot in the arm for these areas.” They chose to build SCI Coal Township and other correctional facilities in these areas. The amount of economic influx that these facilities put into surrounding communities is underappreciated. I have a budget of $80 million a year. The majority is for staff salaries, personnel costs. But obviously we need to run a facility. As you’ve seen when you’re walking through, it’s a city within itself. It’s a community. So when you have approximately 2,400 inmates to feed, we’ll try and buy from local vendors or deal with local businesses as much as possible. Those same businesses that may have been struggling down the road before SCI Coal Township aren’t anymore.