Here’s something you don’t see every day: People at 15th and Ranstead holding on to a giant Gov. Tom Corbett puppet while protesting state funding for new prisons. Around the puppeteers flailing the Corbett-doll’s arms are sign-wielding protesters, who are demanding that social services be the recipient of state money—not the state’s prison system.
Decarcerate Pa, a coalition of organizations dedicated to stopping mass incarceration, staged a rally yesterday to protest the building of new prisons in Pennsylvania. About 100 protesters chanted and held signs urging the state to “build communities, not prisons.” They gathered along the curbs near City Hall around the evening rush hour. Commuters honked at the activists as a speaker on a bullhorn attacked plans to build a new Graterford Prison in Montgomery County.
The rally was staged outside the offices of Hill International, the company chosen to manage construction of the new facility. According to the group’s website, the project will cost an estimated $400 million. That sum is only part of approximately $685 million being spent on prisons by the state.
At the rally and on their website, Decarcerate Pa objects to the current prison system as being not only ineffective at controlling crime, but actually harmful to communities. They argue that it creates repeat offenders and helps to destroy family life. They would replace jail time with treatment programs, community service and other, similar options. According to the coalition, these do a better jobs of addressing root causes of criminal behavior such as drug addiction and poverty.
The state government’s decision to build a new Graterford Prison comes even as it cuts funding to schools around the state, including those in Philadelphia. It also coincides with a rise in teen violence through Philadelphia. The current protest is thus part of a larger dialogue on how Pennsylvania handles issues of crime and juvenile delinquency. Groups such as Decarcerate Pa feel that educate would help to eliminate criminal behavior before it starts. Others argue that without the threat of stiff punishments there would be a rise in the crime rate. It would appear that under the current administration it is the latter attitude that holds sway.
Pennsylvania is spending $400 million to construct two new prisons at the SCI-Graterford site in Montgomery County after slashing nearly $1 billion in public education funding. The funds are in addition to the $1.8 billion corrections budget signed by Republican Governor Tom Corbett, an increase of $208,000 from last year (capital projects are counted separately).
Today, Decarcerate PA staged a protest outside the Philadelphia office of South Jersey-based Hill International, Inc., a major global construction management firm overseeing the "Phoenix East and Phoenix West" project at Graterford.
"Hill is the company that has been chosen to manage the construction of two new prisons at Graterford," says Dan Bergen, an activist with Decarcerate PA and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School. "They are currently accepting bids for the prison through the end of the month. Our message is that now is the time to rebuild communities rather than build prisons."
Decarcerate PA is a coalition of activists urging the state to spend money on alternatives to incarceration and education, and includes organizations such as the Teacher Action Group, Institute for Community Justice, Reconstruction Inc., Fight for Lifers, The Pennsylvania Prison Society, and Human Rights Coalition.
According to a company press release, Hill stands to make approximately $2.5 million from the project.
Hill spokesperson John Paolin declined to comment on the protest, but did say they were a small piece of the picture and "didn’t actually swing the hammers."
"What we do is make sure the project comes in on time and on budget."