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Prison bus offers lifeline for inmates, families to stay connected

| Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, 5:36 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Melonie Grant, 56, of North Versailles, walks back to the Families Outside bus after visiting her boyfriend, an inmate at SCI Laurel Highlands, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Doris Mickens, 65, of Fineview, looks out the window of a bus on her way to SCI Laurel Highlands as part of the Families Outside trip, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016. Mickens works as a coordinator for the nonprofit Family Services of Western PA.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Monet Miller, 32, of Schenley Heights, holds hands with her mother Rochelle Miller, 64, of Schenley Heights on the Families Outside bus after visiting Monet's uncle, an inmate at SCI Laurel Highlands, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Monet Miller, 32, of Schenley Heights returns to the Families Outside bus after visiting her uncle, an inmate at SCI Laurel Highlands, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Maliha Kershaw, 6, of Wilkinsburg, looks out the window of the bus on her way back from SCI Somerset as part of the Families Outside trip, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016. Kershaw was visiting her step-father.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Monet Miller, 32, of Schenley Heights, rides on the Families Outside bus after visiting her uncle, an inmate at SCI Laurel Highlands, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016.

Melonie Grant dusted purple shadow over her eyelids before leaving her apartment in North Versailles.

She drove her car to McKeesport, parked, and caught a bus headed to downtown Pittsburgh to a white minibus waiting to take her to see her boyfriend, an inmate living more than an hour away at a state prison in Somerset County.

"He wants me to look nice," Grant said. "He wants me to be, as he say, perfection."

Before the minibus arrived at SCI Laurel Highlands, a minimum security facility surrounded by a fence topped with razor wire, Grant, 56, brushed her hair and talked about the manicure she got for the visit.

She hasn't seen her boyfriend, whom she asked not be named in this story, for nearly two weeks, but this trip should be one of the last. Her boyfriend is set to be released between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Grant said.

"I'll make sure that he doesn't come back," she said. "That's a guarantee."

About 50,000 inmates are in 26 prisons across Pennsylvania. Many prisons are in remote areas, and it can be difficult or expensive for people who don't have a car or who don't drive to visit loved ones serving time.

Families Outside, a program run by Family Services of Western Pennsylvania, helps to make visits possible. It offers affordable, monthly bus trips to 22 state prisons. It averages 150 to 160 riders per month.

The minibus on Oct. 30 took 16 passengers, Grant included, to SCI Somerset and SCI Laurel Highlands for a five-hour visit. Monet Miller, 32, and her mother, Rochelle Miller, 65, both of Pittsburgh's Schenley Heights neighborhood, sat in the second-to-last row.

The mother and daughter don't have a car, so the program is the only way they can visit Carl Whitson, Monet's uncle and Rochelle's brother. He is serving a life sentence for homicide at SCI Laurel Highlands.

According to court documents, Whitson shot and killed Beverly Moore in Oakland in 1973. Monet Miller said her uncle was in the Vietnam War, suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the woman's death was the result of a flashback. He has been in prison 43 years.

Monet Miller sees Whitson as a second dad and worries about him. Her uncle is battling prostate cancer and has diabetes. He may not be around much longer, and the program gives her a way to check in.

"It's an opportunity to see him, make sure he's OK, physically see him, hug him, talk to him," she said. "I mean, you get phone calls, and you can email. But it's nothing like holding your loved one close."

Driving round trip between Pittsburgh and Somerset on the Turnpike would cost $14.50 in tolls and roughly $15 in gas.

Melonie Grant rides the Families Outside bus but sometimes has to drive to see her boyfriend, who most recently received a sentence of 3½ to 7 years for theft of movable property, according to the state Board of Probation and Parole.

On days that she takes the bus she sees her boyfriend for up to three to four hours.

"I love it 'cause I don't have to do nothing but sit on the bus and look out the window," she said.

Rides to SCI Somerset or SCI Laurel Highlands cost $25 for people ages 17 to 64, $12.50 for those over 65; and $15 for children 5 to 16. Children up to age 4 ride for free.

"It's a huge convenience for me," said Pamela Lane, 33, of Wilkinsburg, another rider on October's trip. She and her daughter Maliha Kershaw, 6, were visiting John Lane, Pamela's husband and Maliha's stepdad, who is at SCI Somerset. "You don't have to worry about tolls, gas and all that."

Even if Monet Miller is able to buy a car, she said she will continue to use the bus program.

"It's not just me ... it's not just my family member," she said. "It's my community, and I'm hoping that with continued support and funding that it will continue to be available for families who may not be able to get up there to see their family members."

Study: Visits help cut recidivism

Studies show that inmates who receive visits have lower rates of re-offending and in-prison misconduct.

A study published in 2011 by the Minnesota Department of Corrections examined more than 16,000 offenders released from Minnesota prisons between 2003 and 2007. According to the study, visits reduced recidivism by 13 percent for felony re-convictions and 25 percent for technical violation revocations.

A 2008 study by Florida State University's College of Criminology and Criminal Justice examined 7,000 inmates released from Florida prisons, stating, "the odds of recidivism were 30.7 percent lower than the odds for those who were not visited."

"If you look at the research, family visits in particular are important and have a positive impact on someone's ability to re-enter successfully," said John Wetzel, secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Corrections, which pays the program $173,000 a year through a state contract. The department spent more than $42,000 per inmate for the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Jennifer Storm is the victim advocate for the state. She said she is behind programs that change offender behaviors for the better because the majority of inmates will eventually be released.

"Family connections are one of the single most important factors for inmates as they seek to re-enter society," she said. "I want them coming out better people. I want them returning to their communities as people who will no longer harm others. Maintaining pro-social family relationships is an evidence-based key concept to successful re-entry."

Calling and writing to inmates is important, but in-person visits provide a more meaningful connection, said Ann Schwartzman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

"You see facial expressions; you see body expressions; you get the warmth of another individual," Schwartzman said. "The research really does show that that one-on-one connection … that real life connection is what means the most."

Rochelle and Monet Miller are up at 5 a.m. on a typical visiting day to catch a ride with "Families Outside."

Whitson typically greets them with a smile and a hug. The rest of the visit depends on how he feels.

"Sometimes, we might just sit there and not say much of anything and just kind of chill out," Monet Miller said.

Pamela Lane's husband, John Lane, has been locked up since his late teens. He was sentenced to 19 to 38 years for charges of aggravated assault, robbery and criminal conspiracy in 1998, according to the Department of Corrections. The two have been together 11 years.

Pamela Lane said she hopes her husband will be paroled soon.

He is taking plumbing and masonry classes at the prison, and he is set to live with her at her house in Wilkinsburg.

"I think his family support is very, very strong, and I think they'll definitely be behind to get him set up right and land on the right track," she said.

Grant said she is confident about her boyfriend's commitment to stay out of prison.

"If he's with me, he's not coming back in here," she said. "No way in the world."

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