Prison and Criminal Justice Reform Through “Mann-Up”

Yesterday I had the privilege of being a guest at the “Mann-Up” Day of Acknowledgement at SCI Phoenix, a state prison in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. I was invited to attend by one of my clients, an inmate at SCI Phoenix, the Master of Ceremonies and one of the leaders of this wonderful organization. My client told me about this group on each occasion that we interacted over the past few months, encouraging me to come experience a meeting. Yesterday’s graduation ceremony honored and celebrated the many incarcerated men who successfully completed 15 weekly Saturday morning sessions of “Mann-Up.” 

From the moment that I entered the corridor on the way to the East Chapel of the prison, I was greeted with handshakes, smiles and warm friendly hugs from the inspirational leaders of “Mann-Up.” I felt at home and honored to be a part of this experience. Many of the men knew me as a result of the kind words said about me by my client and were so grateful that I was there to take part in this celebration.

For three hours, without any of the distractions that I experience in my life outside the prison, I immersed myself in the joy, tears, laughter, talent and growth of about 150 to 200 incarcerated men who reached today’s milestone. Guests included the supportive Superintendent, Tammy Ferguson, State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta, representatives of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, a Pennsylvania Prison Society volunteer, pro bono attorneys who help this organization, and two former SCI Graterford/SCI Phoenix inmates, role models who embody the ideals of “Mann-Up” with their successful lives outside of the prison.

I was honored to hear the voices of the talented “Mann-Up” leaders who showed us how much they have grown through their words, songs, musical arrangements, skits, dance and art. The expressions of the community and institution leaders also added great meaning to the day. What impressed me most was the ability of the “Mann-Up” leaders and participants to speak words of gratitude from their heart to the hearts of men and women inside and outside the prison who helped and supported them to reach this day. The special day in the chapel was a spiritual experience with the graduates responding loudly with firm conviction: “Mann-Up!” in response to the speakers’ words.

One of the participants sang “The Greatest Love of All,” a song of beautiful words which reflect the ideals of “Mann Up.” These highly motivated and driven men have taught themselves that they cannot go back to their lives outside the prison until they make themselves right inside. Their painful and grueling journey to make themselves better gave them a big sense of pride.

The leaders of “Mann-Up” have some great ideas about how to change the world – they want to use their time to go on supervised leaves outside of the prison to work towards changing the paths of so many youth in Philadelphia who make bad choices to become involved with drugs and guns, leading to deaths of innocent children, mothers and other loved ones on the streets and long periods of incarceration when they are caught.

We also heard from a small group of elder lifers, who introduced themselves by telling us their age and the number of years that they have been incarcerated. One gentleman was in his 80’s; many were in their 70’s and at least one had been in prison for over 50 years. I saw firsthand why it is an unnecessary expenditure of taxpayers’ money to keep someone in prison until they die. These men have grown and changed for the better; they are not the same person that they were decades ago when they entered the jail as teens and young adults; and releasing them will not endanger our community. Why shouldn’t their good behavior and positive adjustment in prison be considered to let them out after 20 or 30 years of punishment so that they can have the opportunity to reunite with their families and to age and die with dignity? While imprisonment should be a punishment, it should not be a death sentence for lifers who have demonstrated outstanding and exemplary behavior during their incarceration.

Blessings to the wonderful men who created “Mann-Up” and may they all continue on their worthwhile journey to change themselves and our world for the better. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to experience this program and I look forward to watching this organization blossom into something huge and impactful. 

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