Patriot News Op Ed: Corrections Dept. is misleading lawmakers to justify prison expansion

By Patriot-News Op-Ed
on November 25, 2013

By Nikki Grant

Many Pennsylvanians are asking why - in the wake of painful cuts to essential services - the Corbett Administration has stubbornly moved forward with spending $400 million to build two new prisons in Montgomery County. 

Schools have been shuttered and scores of teachers laid off, but work on State Correctional Institutions Phoenix I and II has continued unabated. 

We believe the decision to move forward with this construction was based on misinformation and lies told to the legislature by the Department of Corrections. 

It is past time for legislators to halt this project and conduct a full investigation into the second most expensive construction project in state history.

Why spend $400 million to add new beds to the state prison system? The Department of Corrections itself has predicted a historic decrease in the prison population over the next five years. 

While the Corrections Department has been hesitant to provide us with answers, detailed investigation has revealed that the department intentionally misled legislators and the public about data justifying this project.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel has argued that the decision to build instead of renovate the existing Graterford Prison was based on a cost-benefit study the agency conducted before starting construction, which indicated that the new prisons would eventually save enough money to offset their hefty price tag. 

Wetzel referenced this study during a radio debate on WHYY in August 2012 and again last February when asked to justify the prison construction at a House Judiciary Committee hearing. When community groups and legislators made repeated requests for these documents, however, Wetzel’s office refused to provide them. 

Decarcerate PA, a grassroots campaign working to stop the prison construction, began to question if this “study” was ever conducted.

After months of exhaustive inquiries, we finally obtained some documentation through the Right-to-Know process. These documents compare the cost of operating SCI Graterford to the cost of operating two newer prisons, which appear to be used as proxies for Phoenix I & II. While none of the documents pass for an independently verified, data driven study, they do reveal a series of inaccurate comparisons and erroneous numbers that have been manipulated to justify what is, in reality, an unjustifiable construction project.

Secretary Wetzel has repeatedly said that closing Graterford would save the DOC $33 million a year. While these documents do project $33 million a year in savings from opening SCI Phoenix I & II, those savings are entirely dependent on closing both SCI Graterford and SCI Greensburg, a smaller prison in Westmoreland County. 

Here’s the problem: Secretary Wetzel has already played that card. He closed SCI Greensburg in June to justify opening another newly built 2,000-bed prison in Centre County. If you take SCI Greensburg out of the equation, all of those much-vaunted “savings” disappear.

Wetzel has also claimed that these new prisons will run more “efficiently” than SCI Graterford and pay for themselves over twenty years. This conveniently ignores the fact that the documents project Phoenix I and II would actually cost $3.6 million more to operate per year than SCI Graterford. 

Given Graterford’s current population, the DOC’s calculations indicate that SCI Phoenix I & II would only generate cost savings if they are filled far beyond their stated 4100-bed capacity. Yet, if Secretary Wetzel’s projections about the population decrease are correct - and we hope they are - not one of the 4,100 beds will be needed five years from now.

Moreover, the documents use numbers with no sources, fail to itemize costs and expenditures, and cite “operating costs” for Graterford and other facilities that do not match the DOC’s own records of those facilities’ costs for the time periods listed. The documents do make one thing clear: Pennsylvania does not need and cannot afford new prisons.

We do need legislators who will take a stand for Pennsylvania by demanding a halt to the construction, investigating how this project was justified, and ensuring that this never happens again. We need legislators who will listen to their countless constituents who do not want to pay for new prison beds at the expense of our schools, social services, and infrastructure. Pennsylvania needs real sentencing reform, community reinvestment, and legislators who value accuracy and transparency above corruption and cronyism.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, and House Judiciary Committee Chairmain Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin, have the power to convene hearings examining whether the Corrections Department intentionally misled legislators about the prison construction and to call on Governor Corbett to halt it. We are asking the Senate and House Judiciary Committees to do the right thing and investigate the misuse of funds by the Corrections Department.

Secretary Wetzel recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer that when he took office, his "first instinct was to pull the plug" on Phoenix I and II. If Secretary Wetzel doesn't have the wisdom to follow his own instincts and cancel this ill-conceived, massively expensive project, legislators must step in and pull the plug for him. 

The documents released by the Corrections Department simply reinforce what we already know: prisons are not the answer to Pennsylvania’s problems. Legislators who refuse to acknowledge this reality do not deserve our support.

Nikki Grant is an attorney and a member of Decarcerate PA, a grassroots campaign working to end mass incarceration in Pennsylvania.