Hi! How are you today?” the downright cheery uniformed guard asked at the front desk of the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Chester. Behind her, a man mopping the floors with the diligence of an Italian grandmother smiles and nods to the group walking by.
It’s another day at the “city within a city” at SCI Chester.
If SCI Chester is a city within a city, that would make Superintendent Marirosa Lamas the mayor. She isn’t keen on the comparison, as she tends to deflect praise to a staff she repeatedly refers to as “phenomenal.”
No one runs a city by themselves. Lamas communicates with all levels of staff daily. Her top priority is safety of the staff, inmates and the facility.
“Years in the business tell you that part of your job is to instill that growth,” said Lamas who shows a genuine interest in the career trajectories of her staff. “If I don’t trust you, then what are we both doing here?”
“I sit in this chair and it is out of humility and privilege,” she says about her office. In front of her desk is a constant surveillance feed of the facility. On the wall is a poem by Mother Theresa.
People are unreasonable, illogical
And self centered;
Forgive them anyway
Lamas is sitting down but not for long. She has the energy of a morning talk show host on an IV drip of caffeine with the temperament of your favorite aunt. A departure from the stereotypical, staunch world of corrections, Lamas is like an explosion of Technicolor in the sterile world of white cylinder walls.
Lamas was appointed SCI leader in July. At age 50 she is the most senior superintendent in the state’s Department of Corrections and the only female, Hispanic superintendent in the department’s history.
In the past year at SCI Chester, she started a mural program to add some color to those white cinder block walls. Inmates draw murals such as LOVE Park or original drawings featuring animals (“Mt. Ruffmore.”) She also initiated Wags at Chester, which brings in rescue dogs to provide socialization and basic obedience training.
The purpose of the pooches and the paintings is the same as the cheery greetings and smiles from staff – humanity.
“Humanity is a great piece of corrections,” explained Lamas. “We model the behavior that we want to see. Our end result… do you want a person who is better or worse when they first came in? I want a person who is better because they are going to be my neighbor.”
SCI Chester, a 1,175 bed medium-security prison for inmates with a documented substance abuse history, was designed to provide a continuum of substance abuse treatment services in the institution and continuing outside at community corrections centers.
Lamas started her career as a counselor and is well aware of the ongoing opioid epidemic.
“We are the catch of what is coming up. If we do not begin to look at the epidemic of opioids, we are going to be the basin for those recipients,” commented Lamas. “The counselor in me says addiction is a disease. We all carry our Pullman of baggage. How can I help you get better? I don’t believe prisons, at times, are the best place for addicts.”
SCI Chester has various academic, vocational and counseling programs to assist with reintegration along with the Vivitrol program, an injectable medication that reduces drug and alcohol cravings for about 30 days.
Lamas stands a hard line in terms of contraband; K2 and suboxone are most common, and again, deflects praise to the internal security department
A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Lamas switches from speaking English to Spanish as seamless as changing channels on a remote control. At SCI Chester where 24 percent of the inmates are Hispanic, being bilingual benefits her immensely.
“It demonstrates to the Hispanic culture a strong, independent Hispanic female which, at times in our culture, is counterintuitive,” said Lamas. “With single parenting being so prominent in our communities it shows them a different face. Being bilingual is who I am.”
Lamas came to the United States when she was eight years-old with her mother and sister (her father was deceased). Growing up in predominately white Lewistown, PA Lamas’ mother stressed the importance of education and empathy.
“My mom was a humble servant and I watched her struggle. She has been a beacon in my career,” said Lamas. “There is great strength in humility and vulnerability. As she is no longer here…any great success I will owe it to her and I only hope to be one-fourth the woman she ever was.”