DPA Op Ed in the Post Gazette- Close more prisons: Pennsylvania needs sentencing reform and reordered priorities

January 16, 2013 12:05 am

For the past year, a hugely expensive new state prison has sat empty in Centre County. Despite calls to cancel the $200 million construction when he took office, Gov. Tom Corbett stubbornly moved forward with the unnecessary 2,000-bed prison project, along with construction of two more prisons, each costing another $200 million, in Montgomery County. As has long been the pattern with prison construction in Pennsylvania, the state decided to build first and ask questions later.

Last week, the Corbett administration finally gave in to mounting public pressure to curb the growth of Pennsylvania's bloated prison system, which has skyrocketed from holding about 8,000 people in 1980 to holding 51,184 people today. On Jan. 9, Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel made headlines with his announcement that when the new prison -- SCI Benner -- opens in June, two older prisons in Cambria and Westmoreland counties will be shuttered.

Mr. Wetzel claims the state will save $23 million per year by closing SCI Greensburg and SCI Cresson and transferring prisoners to the "state-of-the-art" Benner facility and a new unit at SCI Pine Grove. The $23 million annual savings, however, is more than offset by the $400 million the Corbett administration is spending to build two new prisons in Montgomery County.

It is time that the governor listened to the increasing calls from communities across the state for the immediate cancellation of these prison projects. We will not bring Pennsylvania's mass incarceration problem under control by simply replacing old prisons with new ones. We need to decrease our prison population and ensure that it will continue to shrink, and the only way to do that is to enact substantive sentencing reform that allows us to close prisons and invest the money we save on prison cells in our schools, health care and social services.

We can do this by creating parole eligibility for the thousands of elderly men and women serving life sentences in our state prisons, re-examining our mandatory minimum sentencing laws -- which have been shown to have no impact on whether a person returns to prison -- and finally recognizing that incarceration is not an effective way to address drug addiction and abuse.

We should also note that Mr. Wetzel has yet to make a firm commitment that the closure of SCI Greensburg and SCI Cresson will be permanent. In 2005, the state "mothballed" SCI Pittsburgh in order to justify the opening of two new prisons, SCI Forest and SCI Fayette. Barely two years later, Pittsburgh was re-opened and filled to capacity.

Clearly, the projected $23 million in savings from closing Cresson and Greensburg will go out the window if the state continues to reopen old prisons. If Mr. Corbett and Mr. Wetzel are serious about reducing Pennsylvania's prison population, they will tear these two prisons down for good.

Understandably, residents in Cresson and Greensburg are deeply concerned about how prison closures will impact their local economies. Indeed, their communities have been suffering from Mr. Corbett's budgeting decisions for the past two years.

Like counties all over the state, Cambria and Westmoreland counties -- home to SCI Cresson and SCI Greensburg -- have seen devastating budget cuts under the Corbett administration. School districts in Cambria County have lost more than $9 million in state funding since 2010, while schools in Westmoreland County have seen funding slashed by more than $20 million. SCI Greensburg sits in the middle of the Greensburg School District, which has seen its state funding decrease by 13 percent -- almost $1.5 million over the last two years. In Cambria County, human service programs have seen 10 percent cuts across the board.

The state has forced rural communities to turn to prisons as a rare source of stable jobs for far too long. Instead of searching for ways to keep prisons open, we should be demanding that the state invest resources in rural economies in ways that promote health, sustainability and growth. Imagine if the $200 million spent on SCI Benner's construction had instead been invested in saving education and social service jobs in these counties, and in creating sustainable infrastructure and agriculture instead of prison beds.

No one wins when rural communities are forced to fight each other over jobs in an industry that thrives on sorrow. Prisons are not the answer to Pennsylvania's economic woes -- in fact, they are a big part of the problem.

Mr. Corbett's broken priorities are holding our state back. All communities in Pennsylvania deserve quality schools, access to reliable health care and the security of well-paying jobs. As long as we keep funneling millions of taxpayer dollars into constructing new prisons, we will continue to underfund the many things that actually create safe, stable communities.

Prison expansion is a relic of the past. There is no such thing as a "state-of-the-art" prison. Closing Cresson and Greensburg is a small step in the right direction, but if Mr. Corbett and Mr. Wetzel really want a sustainable future for Pennsylvania, they need to get our corrections budget and our prison population under control. By cancelling the Montgomery County prison construction and pursuing meaningful sentencing reform, they can demonstrate a genuine commitment to public safety and economic security in our communities. That kind of leadership would be "state-of-the-art."

Leana Cabral and Sarah Morris are members of Decarcerate PA (www.decarceratepa.info). They live in Philadelphia.