On May 25th, hundreds of people gathered in Love Park for the kick-off rally as part of the “March for a People’s Budget – Stop Prison Expansion Now!” After a series of rousing speakers and poets spoke about the impact of mass incarceration, school closures, and budget cuts, the crowd took the streets for a march to the Philadelphia Art Museum. But that was just the beginning. At the Art Museum, about 50 people set off to cheers and applause for a 113-mile march all the way to the state capitol in Harrisburg.
We walked 113 miles, through the heat and the rain, through the cities and towns of Pennsylvania. We marched to Harrisburg to demand an end to the destructive budget priorities of the Corbett Administration. We marched to demand the General Assembly take a stand against these broken priorities. We marched to say that Pennsylvania needs a People’s Budget, not a Prison Budget.
Right now, the state of Pennsylvania is spending over $400 million to build two new prisons in Montgomery County. $400 million on new prisons at the same time that the Department of Corrections claims the prison population is going down. $400 million dollars on prisons Pennsylvania doesn’t need and can’t afford.
This year’s proposed budget includes an additional $68 million for the Department of Corrections. This would put Pennsylvania’s prison budget at over $2 billion dollars for the first time in the state’s history. $2 billion dollars on cement and razor wire, $2 billion dollars on a system designed to break our communities down instead of building them up.
At the same time, cities and towns across the state are suffering. Over the last 3 years, Corbett and the legislators cut one billion dollars from education. General assistance has been eliminated. Healthcare and social services have been slashed. Teachers are being laid off. 23 schools are being closed next year in Philadelphia alone. Our communities are suffering because the very things that actually make us safe, education, housing, healthcare, jobs, food access, are being decimated. They’re suffering because young people are being funneled into the prison system. They’re suffering because of destructive policies crafted by politicians in Harrisburg.
During our 113 mile march, we spoke with people in towns and cities across the state. People came out of their houses, pulled over their cars, stopped us on the street, to talk to us about how their communities had been hurt by these policies. We talked to teachers and religious leaders whose classrooms and congregations feel the burden of the cuts to education and social services. We talked with people who were coming home from prison, and looking for jobs, or needing healthcare they couldn't afford. And all across this walk, through urban and rural communities, people stood with us to say NO to prison expansion, NO to mass incarceration, NO to school closures, NO to budget cuts.
But we didn’t stop there. We also asked the people we met to imagine with us what they would build instead of prisons. Because we are not simply saying 'no' to what those in power have to offer us. We’re drafting our own blueprint, breaking ground on our own vision for a better Pennsylvania. The people we met on the road from Philadelphia to Harrisburg understood, and shared with us their own incredible ideas for how the vast resources squandered on incarceration could be better spent lifting up communities across the state.
113 miles is a long journey, and we arrived in Harrisburg tired and sweaty, but also full of hope. We are full of hope because of the generosity and kindness shown to us by the people of Pennsylvania throughout our journey. We are full of hope because we’ve glimpsed the dreams and desires of the young people, the old people, the families, the workers, the currently and formerly incarcerated people, who have come together to craft our people’s budget, this vision of a better Pennsylvania, a better world.
So we marched to Harrisburg, and we marched up to the Capitol steps to demand that the governor and the legislature listen to the people. We came to demand an end to prison expansion and a decarcerated Pennsylvania. We came to demand a people’s budget, not a prison budget.
We have talked to many legislators who agree with us, but say their hands are tied, or they’re afraid to speak out, or there is nothing they can do. We want them to know there is something they can do. We are asking the General Assembly to do three things:
1. Refuse to pass any budget with increased DOC funding while the Department continues to waste taxpayer money on unnecessary new prisons;
2. Cancel the prison construction in Montgomery County;
3. Enact legislation instituting a moratorium on new prison construction.
And we are calling on the General Assembly to redirect funds to our schools and communities, and pass legislation that will keep people out of prison, and bring people home from prison.
We don’t want to hear excuses from the legislators. We don’t want to hear about political expediency. We don’t want to hear about “democrat this” or “republican that.” Because mass incarceration is and always has been a bipartisan problem.
Democrats and Republicans can both do the right thing, and the right thing to do is to stand up to this destructive budget. The right thing is to cancel these prisons. The right thing is to invest in our communities.
So we are asking you to stand with us, to stand with the people of Pennsylvania, to say
Not one more prison bed
Not one more classroom closed
Not one more program slashed
It’s time to do the right thing. Its time to bring our loved ones home, its time to give our children a chance a better future, its time to imagine and enact what we, together, can build instead of prisons. It’s time to decarcerate Pennsylvania.