Community Puts Pennsylvania Prison System on Trial

Coalition charges Governor Corbett and DOC Secretary Wetzel with ‘crimes against Pennsylvanians’

Philadelphia. PA: A coalition of organizers are taking court proceedings to the streets with an elaborate display of street theater designed to shed light on the controversial $685 million expansion of Pennsylvania’s Prison system.  Community members will descend on the Municipal Services Building Plaza at 15th St and JFK Boulevard at 4pm on Monday, November 19th, where they will put Governor Corbett and Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel on trial. Over a dozen witnesses are slated to present testimony of the administration’s ‘crimes against Pennsylvanians’, especially the decision to push forward with costly prison expansion while gutting essential services and education funding.

“Governor Corbett and his predecessors have used the prison system to try and solve the state’s problems, but if you ask me, Corbett’s the one who needs to be on trial” said Sarah Small of Decarcerate PA. “Under his watch, the prison system has grown, schools are closing, and our communities are not any safer. “   

As an audience of ‘jurors’ looks on, witnesses from Decarcerate PA, And Justice For All, the Human Rights Coalition, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), and many others will make the case that the actions of Governor Corbett and Secretary Wetzel tear apart communities by investing in prison expansion while eliminating critical safety net programs and leaving already strapped public school systems scrambling to provide quality education to Pennsylvania’s children.  “It is unacceptable for the governor to pour millions of dollars into building new prisons while the state is draining critical funds from our schools, especially when a quality education has a huge impact on the futures of our young people” said PFT President Jerry Jordan, who will be testifying about the impact of budget cuts on schools in Philadelphia.

Decarcerate PA is calling this tribunal to bring attention to the $400 million, 4100-bed prison construction project Governor Corbett’s administration is undertaking in Montgomery County.  The coalition is demanding that Corbett immediately cancel this project and instead reinvest the money into education, healthcare, job training, and social services.

It seems Pennsylvania leaders recognize that the state has a prison problem. In lauding the recent passage of a Justice Reinvestment package – SB100 and HB135– Governor Corbett acknowledged that the state can’t afford to continue building prisons.  But many believe the state’s ‘justice reinvestment’ process falls short of achieving real change.  “The governor talks about justice reinvestment” said Joshua Glenn of Decarcerate PA and the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project, “But to me, justice reinvestment means bringing our loved ones home from prison and giving them the tools they need to stay in their communities. Spending $400 million to build prisons outside of Philadelphia? That’s not justice OR reinvestment.”

The tribunal will also highlight abuses within Pennsylvania’s prisons and the need for comprehensive sentencing reform.  “Pennsylvania’s prisons hold hundreds of men and women in long term solitary confinement, and thousands serving life sentences” said Theresa Shoatz of Decarcerate PA and the Human Rights Coalition.  “This is cruel and unusual.  We are calling on Secretary Wetzel to abolish long-term solitary confinement, and we are calling on our elected officials to enact parole eligibility for lifers and other elderly prisoners.  This is the path to closing down prisons and building up our communities.” 


Decarcerate PA is a coalition seeking an end to mass incarceration and an expansion of mechanisms that maintain whole, healthy communities. We believe that imprisonment exacerbates the problems we face. Decarecerate PA seeks 1.) an immediate and lasting moratorium on all new prison construction, 2.) policies that shrink the prison system, and 3.) reinvestment in our communities. Such steps are necessary to secure socially responsible, personally secure, and economically viable communities in our state.