Thresholds in Delaware County, PA
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      Brief Summary

         Brief Summary  Composed at first posting of this website.

 
Milton "Mickey" Burglass

For over 37 years, Thresholds in Delaware County has been teaching a six-step decision-making to interested inmates in Delaware County's prisons. Thresholds was originally developed by Milton "Mickey" Burglass while he was incarcerated in a Louisiana prison in the mid-1960s. While teaching literacy to his fellow inmates, Burglass observed that many inmates had great difficulty solving problems and making personal decisions. This inability affected all aspects of their lives and often led to arrest and incarceration.  He also found that these inmates learned to read more quickly if they were taught decision-making skills.  The acquired decisional skills allowed them to decide how to pronounce a word rather than be intimidated by guessing wrongly. 

 

 

Cell Notes

 

"Prison is a wise man's school and a dumb man's playground."

 

Thresholds student at the State Correctional Institution, Chester

    After Burglass' release he attended Harvard University where, for his doctorate, he formalized his decision-making process into the highly successful program known as Thresholds. He founded his own organization called Correctional Solutions, Inc. and helped to establish the first Thresholds in Bucks County, Pennsylvania in 1972.

    In the fall of 1973 in nearby Delaware County, members of a group called the Delaware County Justice Coalition began meeting. It was their hope to make some public statement about the need to improve conditions at the Delaware County Prison, which had been receiving negative attention in the press. The group had a difficult time determining its mission but knew they were seeking greater citizen involvement in and awareness of the criminal justice system.

   They learned about the Thresholds program in Bucks County and invited Dr. Burglass to make a presentation in their community. Not only did they invite concerned citizens, but also the county's judges, commissioners and prison board representatives. As a result, the Delaware County Prison Board approved the expansion of the Thresholds program into the Delaware County Prison the following month. Volunteers were then recruited and trained and a grant was received to cover the initial operating expenses.

   Thresholds in Delaware County has been operating ever since. We have trained countless volunteers over the years and graduated hundreds of clients from our decision-making program. While Dr. Burglass is no longer formally associated with Thresholds, he says it will always be a part of him:

"There is no greater teacher than the jailhouse. I wouldn't want to go back for a hundred million dollars, but I wouldn't trade my years in prison for all the money in the world. If I hadn't gone to prison, I would have lived in one of my own making for the rest of my life. To remain a human being in the midst of this is the toughest task anyone ever undertakes. I feel for people who have never had the good fortune to hit bottom, as a result of their own doing, and recreate themselves from the dust.

All the things I have, and all I do, came with the realization that I could decide about my life. I'm still intoxicated with the thought that I am unique, important and irreplaceable, and that I have the power to decide. The deepest level of what it means to decide, and not to react, is that you are not a bit player in someone else's movie...not just a passenger, but an active participant...hooked up to something that has no beginning and no end...part of the process..able to create the future.

Thresholds came out of my experience in the jail, but I don't want to own it. It belongs to you; not from me but through me, and through you as a teacher, so that finding life can happen to others as it did to me. The way to say 'thank you' is to pass it on." - Dr. Milton Earl Burglass.

 

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         Anniversary Article

 

      THE ORIGINS OF THRESHOLDS IN DELAWARE COUNTY

        Compiled by Michelle Rief with the help of Betty Green

        (Reprinted from the 25lh Anniversary Newsletter with revisions)

 

Many of us have heard the standard history of how the Thresholds program was founded. We know it was started by Milton "Mickey" Burglass, a man who once served time in jail in the state of Louisiana. Some of us had the opportunity to meet this mysterious individual when he spoke at our Annual Dinner in February 2000. The details of his life, however, continue to remain somewhat sketchy. One of our longtime volunteers herself was curious about the life of Mickey Burglass. Caryl Jones did some research of her own and this is what she transcribed: "One of our clients commented that he would like to have a conversation with Mickey Burglass. How many of us would like to do that, too! With the purpose of finding out more about the founder of the Thresholds program, I did some homework and would like to share with you a little of what I learned. What I know comes from information gathered at basic weekends, two magazine articles, a "Decision" newsletter and a telephone call to Gretchen Van Utt, a dedicated Thresholds person and friend to Mickey. A young man devised a financial scheme to back a failing oil venture, was pursued by the F.B.I., turned himself in, and at age 24 was jailed in Orleans Parish Prison. It was here that Mickey Burglass was asked to help with a literacy program for inmates and here that the basic concepts for the Thresholds program took form. While the average adult can learn to read in 80 hours, the inmates averaged 120 hours; a deficiency in problem-solving skills was detected and when decision-making was added to the literacy program, the inmates could now learn to read in 38 hours! ...After Mickey was released in 1966, he attended Tulane (B.S.) and New York University Medical School (M.D., M.P.H.) then went to Harvard's Cambridge City Hospital to serve his internship. His association with Harvard included faculty appointments at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Divinity. During these years, the curriculum for Thresholds, which was based on the theories of Piaget and concepts developed at Chicago's Ecumenical Institute, was enlarged and put into manual form, the Bucks County manual, copyrighted 1972."

So how exactly did the Thresholds program in Delaware County get started? According to an article in The Evening Bulletin dated February 23, 1978: "One Sunday nearly six years ago, the pastor of the Unitarian Church, Rose Tree Road, Media, turned over the pulpit to a 'long-haired hippie' who had just been released from Delaware County Prison. The youth, dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt, delivered an impressive sermon. It was good enough to change the lifestyle of Pat Lasseter, a Virginia native who had moved to Swarthmore about four years before. Ms. Lasseter said the young speaker had just spent a week at Broadmeadows for taking part in a peace demonstration. He complained of the lack of programs at the prison, and was especially critical of the lack of transportation from Chester, where many prisoners lived. [There was no Septa bus service to the prison at that time.] Relatives who wanted to visit were paying neighbors $15 for rides to -Broadmeadows on visiting days, he said. Ms. Lasseter was touched. 'I had two preschoolers at home and a lot of time on my hands. I was tired of serving on committees and sulking. I wanted to do something positive,' she said. She immediately started a car pool with other church members to provide relatives and friends with rides to the prison. Her concern over the lack of programs at the prison grew, and her group contacted a national organization called Thresholds, headquartered in Boston."

 The group to which Lasseter belonged was the Delaware County Justice Coalition. This group began meeting in the fall of 1973 for the purpose of making some public statement about conditions at the Delaware County Prison and the drastic need for improvement. This group was composed of representatives from the Unitarian Church, Main Line Cluster for Justice, ACLU and Citizens for Justice, among others. According to the February 11, 1974 minutes of this group: "It was suggested that the coalition be indefinitely dissolved, because of the lack of unity over the group's direction. A compromise plan of action evolved whereby the group ... agreed to address itself to the problem of hiring a superintendent for the prison and institutionalizing citizens' input into Prison Board decisions as recommended in the Garner and White report." The Garner and White report was a study of the Delaware County Prison, or Broadmeadows as it was then called, commissioned by the County. Completed in 1973, it was a Law Enforcement Assistance Act (LEAA) funded study conducted by the architectural firm of Garner and White Associates.

The group did indeed go on to address its' compromise issues as can be evidenced by an article in the Delaware County Daily Times dated October 17, 1974. It reads: "An organization espousing social justice causes, including prison reform, Wednesday urged Delaware County commissioners to appoint 'a responsible prison board' and hire a first-rate administrator to run the county prison. 'The horrifying incidents at the prison last month shocked the community and all decent citizens into realizing that even a prisoner is not safe in his own cell,' Mrs. Elsie Romoser told the commissioners at their weekly meeting. Mrs. Romoser of Radnor, secretary of the Main Line Cluster for Justice, was referring to the alleged homosexual rape of a 19-year-old male prisoner by two other inmates at the prison while a private security guard purportedly looked on. 'The time has come for Delaware County to realize that our prison is a failure,' she said, stressing that many times in the past her group had warned the commissioners about the inadequate number of guards at the institution in Thornbury. Mrs. Romoser also referred to the recent threat by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Corrections to close the prison, saying the warning was not 'an idle threat,' and that it 'cannot be tossed off as petty politics.'" 

It was at this same meeting of the County Commissioners that the resignation of Edward Leiby was announced. According to the Delaware County Daily Times, "Leiby, 59, is a retired state police corporal who was appointed acting superintendent at the county's minimum security prison in Thornbury last May 2 [1974]. Leiby was named top prisonadministrator following a spate of escapes by inmates and an incident in which seven prisoners required hospital treatment for drug overdoses. ... Leiby reportedly told county officials recently he did not wish to continue in a post where he could not do the best possible job because of things like guards' salaries that were beyond his control." Shortly thereafter a new Prison Superintendent was appointed, Gerard T. Frey. Frey was a retired Army lieutenant colonel who had been working as a commandant of cadets at Pennsylvania Military College (now Widener University). One year after Frey's appointment, the State Bureau of Corrections again reviewed Delaware County Prison, however this time the prison received a top rating. In a 1976 editorial letter, Superintendent Frey pointed out that credit for the prison's improvement should go to his staff and others in the community. In the editorial he writes, "I am impressed by the continuing interest and assistance given me by the many groups such as the Pennsylvania Prison Society, Pennsylvania Program for Women and Girl Offenders, Inc., Delaware County Legal Assistance, Thresholds and others."

So how exactly did the Delaware County Justice Coalition get Thresholds started? Well, according to a letter written by former Delaware County Justice Coalition member Nancy Hirsig on February 25, 1976: "Two years ago, Thresholds in Delaware County did not exist. Some of us had heard of Bucks County's program, but no one had tried to start one here as far as I know. Many people in Delaware County had been interested and working for some time toward greater citizen involvement in and awareness of the criminal justice system and the prison. One person had the inspiration to arrange for Dr. Milton Burglass (Thresholds' primary developer) to come to Media in May, 1974 to speak." That person was Yvonne McCabe. According to Nancy, "She invited judges, county commissioners, the prison board, and representatives of various county criminal justice departments, as well as people involved in community groups especially interested in these areas." Nancy notes Yvonne's idea was key, because up to that point the Coalition members had taken a very "us against them" approach. Nancy continues: "One result of that meeting was the prison board's approval, the following month, of the use of Thresholds in Delaware County Prison. Since it's a community-based program, the ball was definitely in our court. Some of us talked about it for two months, waiting for something to bloom. Finally, a handful of people remained who were willing to commit themselves to this effort. I can only speak for myself at this point; I was asked to "lead" the group, although I felt as though I was the least likely, least capable candidate for the job. Knowledge of the program: a little; experience in organization or leadership: practically nil; knowledge of Delaware County Prison and its problems: some, as a concerned person, an 'outsider.' I felt, however, that it needed to be done, and therefore I would try. Four of us attended a basic weekend [training] in Bucks County in September, 1974, and two made the decision, with much trepidation, to go ahead." Those two individuals were Nancy and Pat Lassaster. Nancy goes on: "In talking up Thresholds, in the community and among friends, we gathered a few more people who were willing to give some time and effort to our cause. We formed a board of directors in order to apply for non-profit corporate status, and organized our first basic weekend for January 1975."  

The initial years were difficult ones for the organization. As Nancy explains: "The counseling end of things began in February 1975 in the prison, although it was a time of transition and apprehension at the prison, which was undergoing some administrative changes; Col. Frey had just taken over as superintendent. Our enthusiasm was high, and we managed well through some real and some potential pitfalls. My own image was of all of us simply holding hands and plunging in together." How was the organization able to fund itself in the early years? Thresholds received a LEA A grant through the Governor's Justice Commission from July 1, 1975 to July 1, 1976. It was in the amount of $16,094.00 but required a 5% state buy-in of $894.00. Delaware County supplied the necessary 5% matching funds. This provided a salary for a Director, office equipment, and operating expenses. The prison provided office space free of charge. The first part-time Director hired was Keri Luiso from Bucks County. Additionally, the LEAA funds enabled the organization to send four volunteers to Cambridge, MA for teacher certification. This move made it possible for Thresholds to reduce the Basic Training Weekend fee for volunteers from $30.00 to $15.00.

According to Nancy Hirsig: "Between July and January 1976, we faced some real internal struggles and were forced to look more carefully at our goals and expectations. The gift was the tremendous growth some of us experienced, individually and collectively. When Keri left, I decided to apply for the position of director; the board approved, and on February 1, I began officially in that capacity." Due to a change in priorities established by the Governor's Justice Commission, however, Thresholds did not receive additional LEAA funding after July 1976. From that time until December 1, 1977, Thresholds again became an all-volunteer organization, keeping the office at the prison staffed part-time by volunteers. The Prison Board helped with the expenses by contributing $1,000 and the organization received approximately $800 from area churches.

 

Though the organization struggled financially for some time, Thresholds in Delaware County eventually raised enough funds to not only hire a full-time Director, but a part-time Coordinator and part-time Secretary as well. Nancy Hirsig had since moved away from the area and so Pat Lassaster took on the Director's position until May of 1980. Subsequent Executive Directors were: Jacqui McDonald (1980-1992), Fran Cook (1993-1998), Chris Jacobsen (1998-2000) and Michelle Rief(2000-present).

 

Over the years, Thresholds in Delaware County has likely graduated close to two thousand individuals from our decision-making program. How effective are we? Most volunteers witness firsthand the difference they make in their clients' lives. Our clients demonstrate increased self-esteem, feelings of empowerment, and establish realistic strategies for accomplishing their goals. A recidivism study recently completed at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility found that Thresholds graduates are 33% less likely to return to prison than inmates not completing the program. The impact of the Thresholds program over the years: priceless!

End Origins of Thresholds in Delaware County

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Interview with Past President Betty Green

Past-President Betty Green was interviewed by Past-President and Juvenile Detention Center Program Coordinator Jerry Nowell at the annual dinner

 

Betty Green

at dinner meeting of

Thresholds in Delaware County,

April 16, 2012

JN: How did you first get involved with Thresholds in Delaware County?

Betty: My husband and I moved here in October 1980. In January 1982 I heard a radio spot on Thresholds and decided to take the training and get involved. At that time the county prison was in the old building, which looked like The Shawshank Redemption could have been filmed there.

JN: What was Thresholds like then?

Betty: Our organization got its start In the Mid-1970's when Pat Lasseter and Nancy Hirsig attended training in Buck's County. Locally, Yvonne McCabe persuaded the Prison Board to approve the Program. We began with volunteers, five employees, and a Board of Directors in 1974, with funding from a LEAA Federal Grant.

 The first classes were taught in our County Prison in 1975.  When the Grant ceased in 1979, Thresholds had its first financial crisis. To save the organization, a group took over with one employee, Jacqui MacDonald, who stayed on as Executive Director.  She had been the lowest paid employee, but was the most dedicated.

JN: Did the organization face any other major challenges?

 Betty: Funding is always a challenge.  In 1992, the year before I became President, we had lost our Executive Director of Thresholds when we had run out of money again and found ourselves in hock to United Way.  As I took office, in 1993, a group of volunteers, lead by Fran Cook,  Jerry Nowell and others, stepped in to run the office day to day and keep the teaching cycles going.  When small sums of money began to come in, we hired Fran Cook to be the Executive director. In the beginning, Fran worked many months of 35 hour weeks for a ten hour paycheck.  Thresholds applied for and received grants to pay back United Way, and we became solvent again.  A few years later when Fran moved on to another job, we hired Chris Jacobsen to be the Executive Director; she is coming back onto the Board of Directors this year.

 JN: Do you remember meeting Mickey Burglass?

 Betty: Yes, I remember meeting him when he came to speak at Delaware County Thresholds 25th Anniversary Dinner. We asked him to speak for 25 minutes, but he spoke for 1 1/2 hours on several topics. It was an honor to have him. To the best of my knowledge, he has spoken only twice to Thresholds groups in Mid-Atlantic: Our Anniversary and once to the Lifers Association at a Prison in the State of Delaware.

 JN: What changes have occurred in the Thresholds curriculum over the years?

 Betty: The initial materials were authored by Milton E. Burglass & Mary Grace Duffy and were in use all up and down the East Coast in 1974.  Dr. Burglass retired from Thresholds in the late 1970's.  Although changes were being discussed as necessary even then, some volunteers were devoted to the original Training Manual and Workbook and resisted all changes. The program had been taught as script and volunteers could be corrected for not adhering to it.  The teaching cycle patterns were determined in the training materials.  

 Into the mid-1980's, committees formed and dissolved in anger over possible changes to the materials. (Alas, not all committee members were able to apply the Thresholds model to evaluate possible changes or additions.) But a determined group of teachers, led by people in Delaware County Thresholds with some assistance from teachers from Chester County Thresholds quietly began to modify materials to develop new ideas focused on the current needs of the clients.  We began with the Work Book (Client Guide) Revisions and then in 1990, Jerry Nowell & I moved on to compile the current Volunteer Training Manual.  

 There were several major changes to the teaching Cycle: in 1987, the first came when the original 17 Micro and 4 Macro sessions changed to 10 of each that ran concurrently. I wrote the new lesson plans. Additional materials and scheduling were introduced as needed. The latest change is the one focused on re-entry issues.

 JN: Let's artform your Thresholds experience. What stands out about the Program?

 Betty: The dedication of the volunteers and their willingness to learn.

 JN: What would you like to see changed in the future?

Betty: I would like to see more cooperation between chapters in Mid-Atlantic Thresholds. Also, we should share the information with anyone who will listen! Which just might mean moving into other aspects of rehabilitation, parole, etc.?

JN: Has Thresholds changed you?

 Betty: My children tell me that I am easier to live with because I use the Thresholds model.

 JN: What does Thresholds say to you?

 Betty: Volunteers are valuable and get things done, especially those who teach our clients.

 JN: What do you say to Thresholds?

 Betty: Please don't go away.  I need my friends!

 Question from the floor: What do you say about recidivism?

 Betty: We had a study done a few years ago which shows that Thresholds graduates are less likely to return to prison than the general prison population. We used a three year period of time.  Other organizations use a one year time frame and I think that we should consider doing that as well.   Recidivism data is difficult to determine and is not necessarily a reliable indicator of individual long term success for various reasons. Also, we need to consider additional ways to measure and determine our success as an organization. Perhaps, with grant money, we may need to find a consultant to guide us in broadening our measurements of success.

 Question from the floor: Tell about what happened the day you drove by the prison with your parents.

 Betty: I had recently moved here and in the spring of 1981, I was showing my visiting parents some local sites: this is our library, this is our school, this is where we will vote, etc. But when we drive by the Prison, I said: "That is their jail."  We three reflected on my statement and my Dad said that it seemed foolish talk about "us and them". It was a moment of personal Objective Self-Awareness. Later, when I heard about an opportunity to volunteer at the prison, I took it.

 Question from the floor: How do you keep your energy up and keep contributing over the years?

 Betty: When I am enthused, I simply keep going.  I see a dynamic in this group that I don't see in other volunteers.  Our volunteers are intelligent, capable and strong willed. There simply isn't another group like it.

--END BETTY GREEN INTERVIEW--

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