In his November 26th letter to the Daily News, Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel defends Governor Corbett's prison policy. Responding to an earlier op-ed from Bishop Peggy Johnson calling for an end to new prison construction, Wetzel claims that the Governor has reduced the prison population, and that the new prisons he is building are both necessary and cost effective. Decarcerate PA knows he's wrong on both counts, and fired back with our own letter to the editor:
Letters: Pa. doesn't need more prison beds
Bad way to spend our tax money
IN HIS NOV. 26 letter, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel tries to use progressive language to mask Gov. Corbett's unjustifiable $685 million prison expansion project. Wetzel's two main points are disingenuous and misleading.
First, Wetzel cites a decline in the prison population since June to bolster Corbett's Justice Reinvestment efforts. This is a sleight of hand - using numbers that merely reflect a decline from the sharp increase that happened just before. Pennsylvania's prison population has gone down since June only because the population spiked significantly in the middle of the year. If Wetzel compared today's population to the amount one year ago, he would find that there are actually slightly more people in Pennsylvania's prisons today than there were in October 2011, up from 51,323 to 51,382.
Wetzel's second argument is equally deceptive. Under Corbett's direction, Pennsylvania is spending $400 million to build two new prisons - SCI Phoenix I and II - on the grounds of Graterford prison. Wetzel wants us to believe these prisons will replace the aging SCI Graterford. Yet, again and again, Wetzel refuses to publicly commit to closing Graterford, and his own spokeswoman, Susan McNaughton, has admitted that the facility will remain available for overcrowding. The secretary has also acknowledged that it would be cheaper to renovate the existing facility, but refuses to consider a renovation. Most egregious, the layout for the two new prisons, already substantially bigger than the existing Graterford, includes plans for future housing units in addition to the 4,100 beds currently in construction.
Wetzel concludes by telling readers that there will always be a need for prisons. As long as Pennsylvania continues down the path of mass incarceration, filling new prisons disproportionately with people of color while cutting funding for much-needed services and education, this will surely be the case. If Wetzel really wants to reduce our prison population, he should encourage Corbett to decarcerate Pennsylvania by ending the failed war on drugs, repealing mandatory minimum sentencing laws, and creating parole eligibility for the thousands of aging men and women serving life sentences. If we invest the saved money in the things people need - education, job training, health care, and drug and alcohol treatment - our communities will be safer and we can talk about closing prisons, not opening new ones.