The Origins of Thresholds in Delaware County

Compiled by Michelle Rief with the help of Betty Green

(Reprinted from the 25th 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!