Why America Needs Low-Cost Alternatives to Prison Visits

Jill McCorkel

On a mid-October morning, I drove from Philadelphia to State Correctional Institution Muncy, Pennsylvania’s oldest and largest women’s prison.

The prison, located in the north central part of the state, is set at the base of a mountain and encircled by farmlands, feed mills and the upper branch of the Susquehanna River. The 170-mile drive took nearly four hours.

I was visiting Cynthia Alvarado. In 2010, a Philadelphia jury found Alvarado guilty of driving the getaway car in a robbery homicide. The judge gave her the same sentence as the man who pulled the trigger: life without the possibility of parole.

I was there to discuss her case as part of project on Pennsylvania’s accomplice liability laws.

When I arrived, just after noon on a Friday, the visiting room – an auditorium in a converted school building – was sparsely filled. Two officers stood watch over 10 prisoners and their guests.

The prisoners, women in their 20s and 30s, wore bulky maroon jumpsuits stamped on the back with the letters “DOC.” Just over a third of Pennsylvania’s women prisoners are serving time for violent offenses like murder, manslaughter, robbery and aggravated assault. But the vast majority of women prisoners both at Muncy and across the United States are incarcerated for drug crimes, property crimes and parole violations.

The visitors were mainly parents who looked to be of retirement age, along with a handful of spouses and friends. Although most of Muncy’s 1,400 prisoners are mothers, there were just five children among the day’s visitors, including an infant, a toddler and three kids under the age of 10.

Alvarado offered a precise count of how long it had been since she last spent time with Bianca, her 12-year-old daughter: two years, seven months and 13 days.

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