City Paper: For Schools Advocates, $400 Million Prison Expansion Is a Bitter Pill

Over the past several weeks, as teachers and students have protested in the streets over the devastating layoffs of 3,859 Philadelphia public-school employees, workers at a sprawling construction site 30 miles to the north have been making orderly progress. Their work site? The future state prisons, Phoenix I and II, that is planned to replace Montgomery County’s State Correctional Institution at Graterford, at a $400 million price tag. 

At a time when Philly schools are facing a $304 million budget gap, critics say the construction reflects backward priorities — particularly on the part of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who has cut nearly $1 billion from public-school funding. That sentiment has spread in recent weeks, going viral on Facebook and prompting a widely criticized performance by Mayor Michael Nutter on MSNBC.

“It’s just sending a message to teachers and to school-age children that schools are no longer a priority,” says Fatimah Islam-Hernandez, a member of Decarcerate PA, a group critical of state and federal laws that have made the United States the world’s highest per-capita jailer. “They’re saying, ‘No, this is your destiny, this is where you’re going to end up, so we might as well put all of our funding into this.’”

Earlier this month, Islam-Hernandez, a teacher at Clara Barton Elementary School, joined a march from Philly to Harrisburg calling for a “people’s budget, not a prison budget.”  Yet construction is moving along, set to be complete by summer 2015. It will be the second-most-expensive project ever undertaken by our state government.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, a professed advocate of downsizing prisons, has taken fire from activists over the new construction, which he says he at first questioned: “Our initial plan was also to pull the plug on Phoenix … and then, when we looked at the existing Graterford, it’s just outlived its usefulness.”

Wetzel, who takes credit for closing two state prisons, says the new Montgomery County institutions are necessary to “create environments in our prisons that help people get well.” Graterford was built in 1929, he says, and is “not an environment that’s conducive to rehabilitation.” He points to the lack of air conditioning in the prison’s mental-health unit, which poses a danger to mentally ill patients. 

Ninety percent of prisoners will eventually be released, and both sides of the debate agree that improving re-entry services is critical. Witness the recent Philly job fair for ex-offenders, shut down when an overwhelming 3,000 job seekers showed up. Currently, about six in 10 inmates recidivate within three years of their release.

Wetzel is well aware that change is required. “We’ve used corrections as a default for all our social ills, including behavioral-health issues.” In 2012, he championed Senate Bill 100, known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which aims to put nonviolent offenders in rehabilitation programs — and keep them out of state prison. Wetzel credits the law with helping decrease the state prison population by 500 inmates. While modest, it is the largest one-year decrease since 1971. Wetzel projects the law will reduce the population by 3,600 inmates over five years.  “We came in with a plan to really look at criminal-justice policy and improve outcomes,” he says. “When you improve outcomes by having better and smarter criminal-justice policy, you also reduce population.”

The state’s prison population has increased from 8,000 to 50,000 in 30 years. Since 1980, the state has gone from nine prisons to 26. On any given day, says Wetzel, between 1,500 and 2,000 inmates are in prison simply because they don’t have a home plan as required to be released on parole. 

Wetzel suggests that Decarcerate, instead of railing against Corbett, ought to turn its focus to the legislators who persist in passing the tough-on-crime policies that fuel prison expansion. “We continue to pass legislation that really has no basis in research but makes us feel good,” he says. “If that’s what we want, then just shut up and pay the bill for corrections. But keep in mind that it’s not just costing money, it’s costing lives when you put people in a state prison and they come out worse.”

Prison critics contend the Phoenix project will not actually replace Graterford, but simply expand upon it. And state officials concede they could be right: The Corbett administration plans to “mothball” Graterford, at an annual cost of $5 million, so that it could be reopened in the future.

That very thing happened in 2003, when the state constructed a new prison in Fayette County so that its oldest prison, built in Pittsburgh in 1882, could close. By 2005, the old penitentiary was likewise “mothballed.” But in 2007 it was opened to new inmates once again, as Pennsylvania’s incarcerated population continued its rise.

If history repeats and Graterford is brought back into service, the state’s already bloated prison capacity will expand substantially. The two new prisons will contain 4,000 beds, slightly more than the 3,987 currently available at Graterford. There will also be a new 200-bed women’s unit.

Tearing down Graterford — rather than keeping it in reserve — could allay some concerns, and Wetzel says he’d like to do that. But he is unsure whether there will be sufficient funds for a demolition project he guesses would cost $10 million to $20 million. It’s unclear why the $5 million in annual maintenance costs would be easier to come by.

Activists also argue that the state should have publicly considered renovating Graterford rather than replacing it. The new prisons, according to Wetzel, will save $33 million per year on operations costs. But no accounting of the potential costs of renovation has been made public.

“There are so many things that need to be maintained and fixed and retrofit,” Department of Corrections spokesperson Susan McNaughton explained in an email. “Just repairing the roofs alone will cost millions. It would never be to the standard that Phoenix will be.”

Politically and legally, prison overcrowding can play to activists’ advantage. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s overcrowded prisons violated the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment, and ordered the state to reduce its prison population by 30,000. If California could have afforded to build more prisons, the case would have been moot and population growth would have remained unchecked.

Prison expansion most everywhere has been a bipartisan project: The Phoenix construction was first approved under Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell as part of the 2008 capital budget. 

The Corbett administration did cancel construction of a new Fayette County prison, and Wetzel oversaw the closing of prisons at Greensburg and Cresson. But activists say the gestures were empty, since prisoners were simply moved to a new prison in Benner Township. 

Prison critics say that one thing that would successfully decrease prison ranks is fully funding education. “We want to see the resources that go into prison construction go into our communities instead,” says Thomas Dichter, a Decarcerate member.

Wetzel says he agrees: The population of state prisons, which currently incarcerate one in every 200 Pennsylvania adults, must be reduced. “The thing I love about Decarcerate is they make people think about the criminal-justice system,” says Wetzel. “Education over incarceration? Yep, we agree.”

Mayor Michael Nutter has, to his great annoyance, also become a target for activists demanding that state funds be shifted from corrections to education. Criticism of Nutter boiled over after a June 10 appearance on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes where he refused to denounce prison construction or school budget cuts and closings. Daily News reporter Will Bunch’s critique was characteristic of the negative reviews, calling Nutter’s stance a “bizarre defense of the current status quo.”

“Some people don’t understand the difference between a city and state budget and who pays for what,” Nutter spokesperson Mark McDonald wrote in an email. “You may want to discuss spending choices made at the commonwealth level. That’s fine, but we have nothing to do with it.”

Nutter, who declined an interview request, has continued to express frustration on the subject. Three days after his television appearance, Nutter tweeted: “News Flash — the ‘prison’ that some are talking about is NOT in Phila, has NOTHING to do with Phila, and it is REPLACING 3 prisons in Pa.” 

Nutter is incorrect: There are two prisons that will replace one prison. And Philadelphians make up 30 percent of the state prison population, and more than 50 percent at Graterford. As Wetzel told the Inquirer this month: “This is the city’s prison.”

And critics might soon be protesting outside City Hall — about matters that are within the city’s control.

Philadelphia’s capital budget this year includes $2.3 million to purchase land for city jail expansion, to replace the House of Correction. The expansion is part of a Philly Prison System master plan that is not yet complete. The coming city debate will likely echo the conflict over Graterford: The House of Correction, built in 1927, is dilapidated and overcrowded. City prisons have been heavily criticized — and sued — for “triple-celling,” or putting a third inmate on a cot on the floor.

“People in Philadelphia who are looking at 23 schools being closed, who are looking at this doomsday budget, are not going to look very kindly on a new prison being constructed,” says Dichter. “The days of prison growth and expansion without people noticing what is happening — I think those days are over.”