Philadelphia City Paper, Thursday December 13
By Dan Denvir
Decarcerate PA finds it troubling that Pennsylvania, home to the Cradle of Liberty, keeps more than 50,000 of its people locked in cages. The upstart organization, founded just over a year ago, is tapping into public disenchantment with the war on drugs and concern that prison spending is breaking the public bank.
Their goals: Stop all new prison construction, downsize the prison population and reinvest the saved money in communities, schools, drug programs and jobs. “We believe that money should be invested in those areas as a way to combat crime, as opposed to building prisons,” says Hakim 'Ali, a Decarcerate leader who spent decades behind bars.
Decarcerate formed in response to Gov. Tom Corbett’s 2011 budget, which slashed spending on schools and programs for the poor and disabled. The grassroots and penniless activists have quickly given voice to a rising statewide movement: Members have debated Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel on WHYY’s Radio Times, penned op-eds for the Inquirer and gone toe-to-toe with the state in dueling Daily News letters to the editor. Their protests against the construction of the new $400 million Graterford state prison, which will expand the facility’s capacity by more than 700 inmates, have drawn widespread attention.
Rarely has a grassroots group so quickly made itself into such a productive annoyance to the most powerful. To do so takes a big vision and an open heart — the same mindset Decarcerate PA says society needs as it rethinks its approach to criminal justice.
“I will give them the opportunity to change,” says Ali, referring to Corbett’s frequent statements in favor of prison reform. “I haven’t closed the door on these dudes.”