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Jaunts to jail: Pa. prison overcrowding leads to a Philly area cottage industry

By her estimate, Stacey Wilson has spent more than a week of her life traveling to and from prisons to visit her son Derron, who is serving 7-and-a-half to 15 years for attempted murder.

Jane Hainey of Duals Round Trip Transportation drops off visitors at the SCI Camp Hill facility.
Jane Hainey of Duals Round Trip Transportation drops off visitors at the SCI Camp Hill facility.Read more(Bradley C Bower / For the Inquirer)

By her estimate, Stacey Wilson has spent more than a week of her life traveling to and from prisons to visit her son Derron, who is serving 7-and-a-half  to 15 years for attempted murder.

He formerly was imprisoned at Graterford and Camp Hill, and she visited as often as twice a week. But these days, Derron Wilson, 25, is incarcerated at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Mercer - a 722-mile round-trip to Western Pennsylvania from Wilson's Wissinoming home.

The trips take a toll, financially and physically. So on recent visits to Mercer - a daylong ordeal, she said - Wilson, 45, and her family have awakened before dawn and boarded a van operated by Duals Round Trip Transportation, a five-year-old Collingdale company, to make the trek along with other inmates' friends and relatives from Philadelphia.

Duals is one of at least 20 companies in the state - most of them in and around Philadelphia - that have cropped up to shuttle relatives and friends on prison trips.

The cottage industry took off, Duals founder Jane Hainey said, after a 2011 state law mandated that low-level offenders with short sentences be sent to state prisons rather than county jails, leading to overcrowding - and greater demand for transportation.

Financial burden

Clients of these companies say they appreciate the chance to make regular prison visits but are frustrated by the financial burden.

Before her son was at Mercer, Wilson would make the trip herself. But six hours is a long time, and she isn't used to driving outside Philadelphia. A trip to Mercer by Duals costs $80 per adult and $20 per child, whereas gas would be only about $60.

"I always tell my son that when he [serves time], we suffer, too," Wilson said.

Duals' Hainey spends most of her days traversing between Philadelphia and the prisons and whiling away the hours during visits. This month, Duals was scheduled to make 50 trips to 23 of the 26 prisons in Pennsylvania.

Hainey's business began in 2011 with visits to a friend incarcerated at Mahanoy, in Schuylkill County. She has a personal stake in the service, she said, because she has a son at Graterford.

Although other companies require customers to meet at one location, she prides herself on picking people up at their door. She uses mostly social media to get the word out.

Hainey is "really about the family," Wilson said. "Everybody needs support, no matter what you've done."

The most expensive trips can cost $100 per adult and can run into hundreds of dollars for one family, although one enterprising company promises low rates in its email address: Public transportation isn't an option because most state prisons are in rural areas.

Although driving is cheaper, people have many reasons for not driving. Kristal Bush, owner of Bridging the Gap Transportation in Philadelphia, said that many people she serves don't have cars, and that those who do are uncomfortable with driving long distances, often in an unfamiliar area and late at night.

It has been established that human contact - through letters, phone calls, and visits - decreases the likelihood of recidivism. But contact has a cost. Letters, phone calls, and commissary items - not to mention meals and possibly lodging during a visit - can add up.

"That [incarcerated] young man was the primary breadwinner, and [relatives] are expected to pay," said Jarrad Gholston, owner of Family Coach Bus Connection in Southwest Philadelphia, speaking of a hypothetical prisoner. "It's capitalizing off the love people have for each other."

A hard goodbye

Because of the emotions involved, it's not just a transportation service.

On a recent trip, Hainey took four passengers to Camp Hill. The younger passengers - a man and two women in their early 20s - were fairly quiet, but the drive was punctuated by loud laughs shared by Hainey and Sharon Rhodes, a boisterous woman with magenta hair, and a repeat Duals customer.

Rhodes, a 50-year-old South Philadelphia resident, said her husband loves her visits. "He's going crazy when I'm not up there," she said.

During a pit stop at a convenience store, Hainey apologized for the relatively subdued ride, and said her passengers often use the time to catch up.

"It's usually way crazier," she said with a laugh.

Hainey, dressed in a white T-shirt with the Duals logo, was all business once the van arrived at Camp Hill, filling out paperwork and scheduling rides. Her cellphone rang all day.

On the way back, passengers were in a better mood, buoyed by their visits. Still, they said, when visiting hours are up, a sense of melancholy always permeates the room.

At her home last week, Wilson pointed to her son's high school diploma and shook her head.

"The hardest part is saying goodbye" to Derron, she said. "When I have to leave, I try not to look at him."