Philly needs bail reform and education funding, not more prison beds
In March of 2015, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter released a “10-Year Master Plan for the Philadelphia Prison System (PPS).” The plan recommends the city close the House of Correction and build a new jail with 3000 beds, more than doubling the intended capacity of the existing facility.
“Why can we find money for jails, but we can’t find money for our schools? We need to end stop and frisk. We need to change the ways in which people are put in jail for minor offenses and stop finding ways to put people in prison,” said Ezenwa Ilabor, a junior at West Philadelphia High School and member of Philadelphia Student Union. “Instead of more jails, why not invest in children’s futures?”
We believe Philadelphia does not need a new jail. The House of Correction can—and should—be closed. But instead of building more jail beds, Philadelphia needs real, systemic change. We need bail reform. We need an end to stop and frisk and other racist police practices that disproportionately channel poor people and people of color into the city's jails. We need real transparency and accountability to end rampant overcharging in the District Attorney’s office and eliminate the unjust pressure on defendants to accept plea bargains. We need to address overcrowding and other human rights abuses in the Philadelphia Prison System by keeping people home while they await trial. We need systemic commitment to alternatives to incarceration that address harm, violence, and loss in our communities in ways that will lead to real transformation and healing.
That’s why Decarcerate PA – along with our allies from the Philadelphia Student Union, 1Love Movement, X-Offenders for Community Empowerment, and the Human Rights Coalition – have been mobilizing over the past several months to stop the jail expansion and change the policies and practices that keep Philly jails full.
“Philadelphia holds far more people in jail on cash bail than comparable cities like New York and Washington DC, and our court system moves at an excruciatingly slow pace,” said Ashley Henderson, a local attorney and member of Decarcerate PA. “Nearly 80% of people held in Philadelphia’s jails are simply waiting for their cases to be brought to trial. We are criminalizing people for being poor and warehousing people for years who haven’t been convicted of any crime.”
Already, this campaign has garnered public support and media attention, as well as a temporary but significant victory in City Council. On May 21st, Councilman Bobby Henon was poised to introduce Bill #150406, which would authorize $7.2 million dollars to buy land to build a new jail. Decarcerate PA caught word of the bill, and mobilized an immediate response. We also delivered a letter directly to council people outlining why jail expansion is not the solution to overcrowded jails. Thanks to this pressure, Councilman Henon did not put the bill up for a vote.
Over the ensuing weeks, Henon kept asserting that he would bring the bill during the following council session. And each time, the #No215Jail campaign escalated our opposition. We organized multiple call-in days, flooding city council with hundreds of calls from people across the city urging policy change and full funding for public education rather than building more jail cells. We mobilized people to come to City Council with signs, banners, and our voices, to say loud and clear that a bigger jail was not an answer to the city’s problems. And Decarcerate PA members and others in the coalition testified to the devastating impacts of mass incarceration on our communities.
During one of these meetings, Reggie Abdullah Carter, member of Decarcerate PA and the Philadelphia Community of Leaders, testified to the broader context of the struggle. “The continual building of prisons across America is a clear indication of the desire to maintain a deadly status quo that is based on race and class struggle.”
Decarcerate PA also delivered written testimony from people who had been locked up at HOC. “When I was 17, the police arrested me with no evidence, the District Attorney decided to try me as an adult, and I was sent to the House of Correction,” said Josh Glenn of Decarcerate PA. “I was held for a year and a half before the charges were dropped. I know firsthand that HOC is falling apart and the city must find a way to close it down. But building a massive new jail is not the way. Instead, City Council should figure out how to make sure no one goes through what I went through ever again. Right now, people go through it every day.”
In the end, the months of protesting paid off. On June 18, the final City Council session before the summer recess, Councilman Henon pulled the bill. Citing concerns from community groups, he said the City would hold public hearings on the expansion project in the fall, before the money for land acquisition again came up for a vote.
Decarcerate PA and the #No215Jail campaign will be working diligently over the coming months to make sure this temporary victory grows into a permanent cancellation of the construction and generates long term policy changes that keep people out of the Philly jails altogether.