A Graterford Power

Do prison inmates deserve a voice in how they're treated? By answering yes to that question, warden Dave DiGuglielmo has made Philly's toughest prison a better place

He does this every day. Wanders through cellblocks, the lunchroom, into the chapel, maybe the gym. So every day they come up to him:

“Can I talk to you for a minute, sir? My dad called the institution at 8 the other day … ” It’s an older inmate, with a long, bushy, salt-and-pepper beard, and he’s agitated. “He said the phone rang and rang, he finally got some secretary … Why couldn’t someone call the block, and let me know he called. I’ve been here 23 years, Dave.” [SIGNUP]

Dave. Dave DiGuglielmo. He’s the warden at Graterford, the head man. He’s been here himself 36 years, and he’s retiring next month, a middle-aged guy with a bit of a potbelly. For most of his time here, he lived on a farmhouse on the property.

Now he listens to the inmate with the salt-and-pepper beard—the inmate says that someone who’s been in Graterford as long as he has, why, he’s got certain rights! Of course, you get the privilege of 23 years in Graterford to begin with by doing something horrendously violent. Dave hears him out.

A few minutes later, another inmate comes up to him: “I was just trying to make a clothesline.” He tore up a bed sheet, it turns out, and got written up. He doesn’t think it’s fair. DiGuglielmo points out, quietly, that if you destroy prison property, you’ll get flagged. It’s one of the rules.

David DiGuglielmo’s been here longer than pretty much all of them. There are almost 3,500 inmates — Graterford and Camp Hill are about the same size, the biggest in the state — and about 750 lifers, with an average prisoner age of 40. DiGuglielmo was trained as a psychologist at Villanova and Temple, started at Graterford in 1974 testing for mental health intervention. He was one of two psychologists then, though the other one soon quit; now there are 13. He’s been superintendent the past seven years.

Back in 1974, Graterford was one of the most violent prisons in the state, maybe the country. DiGuglielmo’s first 12 years, there were 11 murders, inmate on inmate. Two staffers were killed. Two others were brutally assaulted — one landed in a nursing home and eventually died. Every day, there were fights.

In 1995, a massive cleanup known as “The Raid” was undertaken. Some of Graterford’s administrators were fired, others transferred. DiGuglielmo stayed and moved up the chain of command.

There hasn’t been an inmate-on-inmate murder here since 1997.

There are a few reasons for that. The prison’s violence in the ’70s and ’80s stemmed largely from gang trouble in Philly, which has dissipated (about half of Graterford’s inmates still come from the city; 60 percent are black. Statewide, the prison population is one-third black). The prison started working a lot harder sniffing out drugs coming in: Mail is x-rayed, phone calls listened to (the prisoners know this); K-9 dogs circle visitors, and if a dog sits down next to somebody coming in, there’s a problem. It doesn’t happen anymore that a prisoner will get up from a visit and collapse because the balloon he just swallowed filled with coke exploded.

It’s a different place. A place where a visitor realizes his assumptions about prison life are about as up to date as Shawshank Redemption. As Dave DiGuglielmo walks freely around, he says, “If inmates have no voice, no opportunity when they get out of bed in the morning to think the day is going to be okay, then what happens?”

Bad stuff, if a joint filled with murderers and rapists and the like has an ugly vibe. “As an old corrections person once put it to me,” says Dave, “‘Why does the prison staff get to go home? Because the inmates let you.’”

This is not exactly some people’s perception of a properly hardheaded warden, and Dave has heard that opinion, especially in Federal Court.

But 35 years ago, an officer who’s now a deputy warden says that when he was assigned a certain cellblock at Graterford, the hair stood up on the back of his neck. He just hoped to see the sun rise tomorrow.

Last fall, a routine check of a cellblock of 550 inmates yielded no weapons. But that, too, could change.

“Change can be dramatic,” Dave DiGuglielmo says. “A lot comes from the philosophy affected by legislative will” — which is a nice way of saying that a conservative administration in Harrisburg can put the kibosh on treating inmates as men who want to receive calls from their fathers and need clotheslines.

Dave DiGuglielmo, taking his walk, goes into the lunchroom. The inmates, perhaps 100 of them, don’t look too happy. They wait in line, get their grub, move slowly to a seat. They don’t talk much. They don’t smile. A lot of them have done horrible, violent things, and there are a lot of them.

A guy stands from his bench at a table, stops Dave. He needs to talk.

ROBERT HUBER is Philly Mag’s features editor.