Six Myths about Prison Expansion in Pennsylvania

Governor Tom Corbett and Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel say they are concerned about prison growth and prison spending in Pennsylvania.  But we all know that actions speak louder than words, and there are some pretty big gaps between what Corbett and Wetzel are saying and what they are doing.  Today, Decarcerate PA is exposing the truth behind their claims.

Myth #1: Governor Corbett isn’t expanding the state’s prison system; he canceled a proposed prison in Fayette County.

FACT: Governor Corbett did cancel a proposed prison in Fayette County. At the time, the governor said he wanted to promote industries that “generate wealth, not sorrow.” But the Fayette project was just one small piece of a larger plan to expand Pennsylvania’s sprawling prison system.  Since taking office, Corbett has continued to build three new prisons, one in Benner Township and two in Montgomery County.  He is also expanding nine existing prisons, including SCI Cambridge Springs, SCI Forest, SCI Houtzdale, SCI Mahanoy, SCI Rockview, SCI Greensburg, SCI Laurel Highlands, SCI Pine Grove, and SCI Coal Township. These new and expanded prisons cost $685 million to build and add 5,000+ beds to the state prison system. Though the expansion plans were initiated by the Rendell Administration, Governor Corbett has continued to aggressively move them forward.  These plans are out of step with the national trend toward shrinking state prison systems.

 Myth #2:  The prisons being built in Montgomery County (SCI Phoenix East and SCI Phoenix West) are not an expansion, but a replacement for the old Graterford Prison.

FACT:  Governor Corbett and Secretary Wetzel claim that the two 4,100-bed, $400 million prisons being built in Montgomery County are a replacement for the old Graterford prison.  They claim, based on an “internal study” that they have so far refused to release to the public despite repeated requests, that it is not possible to renovate Graterford and Pennsylvania will actually save money by building more “efficient” facilities. 

But there is nothing efficient or sustainable about prison construction. Even if the DOC does shut down the old Graterford, the new facilities will add between 800 and 1,100 beds to the state prison system. The construction process threatens the local ecosystem (including the surrounding wetlands, home to nesting bald eagles), and new prisons will further pollute the water system and depress the economy—all at taxpayer expense. If the state really wanted to increase the prison’s efficiency, it would rehabilitate the existing facility and work toward permanently closing other facilities. Yet the DOC refuses to do this. It has conducted no independent analysis of options that would maximize efficiency, nor has it invited public participation or comment on the process.    

In addition to the 800+ beds that the new facilities will add, the plans for SCI Phoenix I and II demarcate where future housing units will be built. While claiming to reduce the prison population, Secretary Wetzel is already planning for the next prison expansion.

Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the DOC will actually close the old Graterford and keep it closed.  In 2003, the DOC built a new prison in Fayette County to “replace” SCI Pittsburgh.  The DOC claimed that the Pittsburgh prison needed to be shut down because it was too old and decrepit to fix.  But in 2007, the DOC reopened SCI Pittsburgh to address overcrowding.  Now SCI Pittsburgh—embroiled in lawsuits alleging rampant sexual and physical of prisoners—and SCI Fayette are both filled to capacity. In a recent Daily News article, DOC press spokesperson Sue McNaughton admitted that the existing Graterford will be used to relieve temporary overcrowding in the prison system. So instead of one inefficient prison in Montgomery County, the Department of Corrections might have three. 

Myth #3:  The new prisons at Graterford are being built for the benefit of prisoners and their families.

FACT: Decarcerate PA has been in communication with many individuals and organizations within Graterford, as well as the family members of incarcerated people. Everyone we have spoken to is against the expansion of the prison system.  While the Department of Corrections could and should take immediate steps to improve conditions within Graterford, building more prisons is not the answer.  The men at Graterford have made it clear: they do not want these new prisons built.     

To help men and women inside prison, to help the families and communities that they come from, the Department of Corrections should spend more time and resources working to improve the conditions inside facilities and to ease the burdens of re-entering society after a conviction. Building newer or bigger prisons only adds to the problems we face.   

Myth #4:  The DOC is building a “transitional” housing unit for women on the grounds of SCI Graterford because it is trying to reduce the number of women in prison.

FACT: The new prisons being built in Montgomery County include a “transitional” housing unit for women who have nine months or less left on their sentence.  The DOC claims that this will decrease recidivism because it will allow women from Philadelphia to be closer to their families before they get out.  But if the DOC really believes that this will lead to fewer women in prison, why is it also spending over $20 million to expand the women’s prison at Cambridge Springs by 380 beds?  Clearly the DOC is planning to incarcerate more women, not fewer.

If Governor Corbett and Secretary Wetzel want to help women from Philadelphia be closer to their families, does it really make sense to house them at a men’s prison in Montgomery County?  Instead of creating more prison beds for women, the state should create more opportunities for women to obtain parole or prerelease so they can actually return to their families and communities sooner. Such programs, not more prisons, are the ways to have fewer people in prison.

Myth #5:  The money allocated for the prisons comes from capital funds and therefore cannot be reallocated to fund schools or social services.  

FACT:  In reality, the money being spent on prisons comes from the exact same place as funding for education and social services, and that’s Pennsylvania taxpayers.  The big difference is that capital projects like the prison expansions are being funded through General Obligation Bonds, which means they are being funded with borrowed money.  Not only are we spending $685 million on prison construction, but we will actually spend significantly more than that because we will be paying back that $685 million with interest.  Our children will pay the price of these prisons - not just in this year’s budget and next year’s budget, but for decades to come.  The money to pay back Pennsylvania’s debt does come out of the general fund, which means it is paid for with the same money that could be funding our schools instead.  In this year’s budget alone, the state is spending almost $1.2 billion dollars to repay our debt.  We are paying now for the prisons that were built in the 90s.  And unless we stop this prison expansion, our children will be paying for these prisons for the next twenty years. 

Myth #6:  Governor Corbett is serious about prison reform—just look at the Criminal Justice Reform Act.

FACT: The governor, who recently signed a prison reform bill and initiated Pennsylvania’s Justice Reinvestment process, has claimed the mantle of a prison reformer.  While including modest steps toward prison reform, the Criminal Justice Reform Act also takes some major steps backwards. It eliminates the pre-release program, which allowed qualifying prisoners to reenter their communities and begin rebuilding their lives while saving the state millions of dollars. The Act also failed to take up the issue of Pennsylvania’s excessive use of lengthy sentences, its growing number of elderly prisoners, and its widespread use of solitary confinement. And the act continues to allot taxpayer funds to pay for the incarceration of people on technical parole violations for things as insignificant as missing an appointment or changing one’s address without informing a parole officer, it just incarcerates them in Community Corrections Centers, not in the state prisons. Locking up parole violators, elderly people, and people with nonviolent drug charges costs tens of millions of dollars a year with no demonstrated benefit to public safety. We could, instead, spend that money on programming, treatment, and resources that help people lead successful lives and stay out of prison. 

If Governor Corbett and Secretary Wetzel want to get serious about prison reform, they need to stop building prisons.  We need to make real policy changes, like allowing parole eligibility for lifers, repealing mandatory minimum sentencing, and ending the war on drugs.  And we need to invest in the things that really keep us safe:  quality public education, jobs and job training, healthcare, housing, access to social services, and non-punitive programs that address the root cause of violence in our communities. 

Governor Corbett and Secretary Wetzel, Pennsylvania has spoken loud and clear: We don’t want, and can’t afford, new prisons.  We need to invest in communities, not prisons.