PA activists target construction giant managing $400 million prison project

by Dan Denvir, City Paper

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."

Indeed, Hill does so for governments worldwide: They have managed Mayor John Street’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, the Chunnel between England and France, a 3-mile long palm tree-shaped resort island in Dubai, Iraq reconstruction for the Army Corps of Engineers, and a new security center for the Saudi Arabia Department of the Interior.

For Hill, the PA Department of Corrections is just another (big) paycheck.

Elsewhere, the big bucks spent on prisons are drawing new and intense scrutiny as the recession and ensuing revenue crunch prompt even the most conservative Republicans to reconsider harsh lock 'em up "tough on crime" policies.

In Pennsylvania, that has yet to translate into real change. Though in 2009 the number of state prisoners nation-wide declined for the first time in 38 years, the prison population in Pennsylvania grew by 2,122 people (4.3 percent) — more than in any other state.

"The fact that our budget is $1.86 billion has a lot of people rethinking some of the assumptions we’ve made in the past," Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel told the Inquirer in July. "When we over-incarcerate individuals — and there is a portion of our population that we over-incarcerate — we’re not improving public safety. Quite the opposite."

But Wetzel is nonetheless making room for 1,000 new prisoners at Graterford.

"We had been experiencing an increase in our inmate population," explains Department of Corrections Press Secretary Susan McNaughton. "The two new prisons would replace the current Graterford, which now housed [sic] just more than 3,000 inmates. The new Phoenix prisons will be 2,000 inmates each. We will transition the current inmate population over [to] the new prison, which will leave us with another approximately 1,000 inmate beds."

Philadelphia, unlike the state, has made progress. District Attorney Seth Williams has stopped imprisoning most people arrested for pot possession. Though the move elicited (toothless) howls from the conservative former DA-for-life Lynne Abraham, it had an impact. According to a recent Pew study, Philadelphia’s prison population quadrupled between 1980 and 2008 — and then decreased by 11 percent in 2010.

Decarcerate PA supports a proposal from Republican State Senator Stewart Greenleaf (SB 100), a one-time lead supporter of harsh sentencing, which would boost support for programs to help ex-offenders reenter the community and offer non-prison alternatives for non-violent offenders.

"Part of what we're hoping to do is really bring Pennsylvania in line with the national move to decarceration," says Bergen. "What you see in states as diverse as New York, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Texas is the implementation of a variety of alternatives. The states that have made these moves are both Democrat- and Republican-run states."

Pennsylvania, the consummate purple state, is still waiting in the wings.

First three photos courtesy of Decarcerate PA, last photo courtesy of Thea Riofrancos.