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CentrePeace offers some a second chance

Almost every driver who enters or leaves Bellefonte on the Benner Pike has seen the sign for CentrePeace. On fair weather days, its rambling structure is surrounded by sofas, chairs, and tables available for sale. Some folks are tempted to stop there and look for bargains. They are likely to notice that some of its workers wear orange suits—inmates from the Centre County Prison who are brought there by a staff member every morning and taken back to their cells every afternoon. 

CentrePeace is a complicated institution for, as Director Thom Brewster explains, it i one of the few social service agencies that is largely self-funded. Ninety-five percent of its income is generated by what is sold in their showroom., and the remaining 4–5 percent comes from the Centre County United Way. 

Unlike other agencies, CentrePeace sells goods and services. Aside from the sale of household furniture, most of it donated, it also repairs broken tables, reupholsters sofas and easy chairs, and even, as this writer can attest, recanes Hitchcock chairs. 

Equally important, it helps some criminal convicts rebuild their lives. Sales, repairs, and indeed the moving of furniture (floor space inside the showroom is cramped), are in large part carried out by inmates. CentrePeace needs to have at least four prisoners to function effectively and would like to take more, but during the past year it has averaged barely two inmates per day. 

There is a full-time paid staff consisting of three supervisors, supplemented by three part-time staff members. Without the scores of dedicated community volunteers, often coming from area churches, CentrePeace could not function. Brewster estimates that Project ReStore, the recycling of household goods, annually saves 250 to 300 tons of “stuff” that would otherwise go to the County Landfill.

Working with other groups, such as Catholic Charities and St. Vincent de Paul, CentrePeace will even donate furniture and other furnishings to a customer who is proven totally needy.

The prisoners who are released to work at CentrePeace are gaining skills that may facilitate their employment elsewhere once they complete their sentences. 

Aside from work experience, CentrePeace also imparts life skills such as basic nonviolent conflict resolution, accepting responsibility for personal relationship problems, and breaking barriers to growth caused by attitudes or belief systems. Successfully reintegrating former prisoners into society is a key component of preventing reoffending.

Centre County’s Criminal Justice Advisory Board, which includes Judge Bradley Lunsford, the three county commissioners, Sheriff Denny Nau, District Attorney Stacy Parks-Miller, and the prison warden, as well as Thom Brewster, has called on CentrePeace to design a comprehensive reentry program for released prisoners.

At present, Brewster estimates that two out of three inmates will probably commit a new offense within three years of their release. He organized a field trip for the Board members to visit the Pike County correctional facility, which has reduced its recidivism rate to ten percent. One of the Board members remarked that it looked more like a school than a prison.

CentrePeace’s effort to provide restorative justice to some of Centre County’s prisoners has led to some controversy within the Criminal Justice Advisory Board, because some categories of prisoners are deemed likely to present a public danger. 

Attorney General Stacy Parks-Miller has argued that some inmates, especially those having active protection from abuse orders, should not be allowed to work at CentrePeace, where they might threaten co-workers or customers. Protection from abuse orders are civil orders issued to protect family members from abusers, much like a restraining order.

Parks-Miller’s questions, simply put, are who is trusted and how do we determine that. In an interview for this article, she concluded that “only trusted inmates should have work release.” She regrets that most members of the Prison Board did not agree with her stance, for it has recently eased its restrictions on the release of prisoners to CentrePeace.

Thom Brewster responded in his interview that CentrePeace is not told what the charges were against the prisoners who are allowed to work there, except that their sentences must not exceed two years. Most are serving ninety days on average. 

Only rarely does a prisoner admit that he is under a protection from abuse order, for he is not required to do so. Brewster could recall only one incident when a prisoner violated the conditions of his work release: one inmate last year wandered away from CentrePeace but was quickly apprehended and taken back to jail. 

This reentry program is in progress. Brewster tries to teach inmates how to present the fact of their having criminal records when they go for job interviews. He publishes once every three years a directory of social services within Pennsylvania, some of which are nationwide, given free of charge to released prisoners.

CentrePeace also runs a Christmas card program. Using card stock furnished by a local printer, it sends blank sheets to children’s, senior citizens’, and other community groups all over the country to design cards. Brewster sends sample cards to all state correctional institutions that wish to be in the program and then sends them as Christmas greeting cards to all their inmates. In 2013 this amounted to 26 thousand cards. “It may well be the only piece of mail a prisoner receives in an entire year,” Brewster said.

There is also a prayer meet, or spiritual connection, program. Volunteers, using only first names for themselves and for the inmates, send them messages to foster spiritual connections. 

The volunteers are from various faith groups but are not bound by denominational category, nor are the prisoners, who find encouragement from any show of concern. CentrePeace also sends birthday cards to all men and women who are on Pennsylvania’s Death Row.

CentrePeace, located at 3013 Benner Pike, Bellefonte, is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., except on Sundays and holidays. 

 

By  ART GOLDSCHMIDT VOICES Staff Writer and Founder axg2@psu.edu

 

The prisoners who are released to work at CentrePeace are gaining skills that may facilitate their employment els