Pennsylvania’s prison population has risen rapidly for decades, but it wasn’t until a plan was released in 2011 to build three new prisons, and expand nine others, that Decarcerate PA decided something had to be done.
“There’s been dramatic prison growth in Pennsylvania, especially since 1980,” said Layne Mullett, co-founder of Decarcerate PA, a volunteer-drive advocacy group based in Philadelphia but active state-wide. “Ideally we would have started much sooner, but this newest expansion plan is really what galvanized us.” The organization recently celebrated its third anniversary.
In the years prior to its formation, the prison population rose from 15,227 in 1987 to a peak of 51,487 in 2009, according to statistics from the PA Department of Corrections.
Decarcerate PA has devoted itself to reversing this trend by stopping prison construction and advocating for legal reforms that could reduce incarceration rates.
Organizations like the ACLU have served this role nationally, but Decarcerate PA is focused on influencing policy within the state. This has put the organization at odds with Governor Tom Corbett and Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel. But it has also forced the state prison system, and its proprietors, to open up a dialogue.
A New Watchdog
Mullett said that the Department of Corrections has responded to Decarcerate PA through counter-messaging and by sending representatives to their events. She added that the organization met directly with Department of Corrections officials about two years ago in a debate on WHYY’s Radio Times.
As for the overall impact of this attention, “it’s a mixed bag,” Mullett said.
Secretary Wetzel announced the closure of two old prisons last January. There was also Senate Bill 100, which proposed a number of changes to sentencing and parole rules including implementing a system of risk assessment to determine whether a person should be incarcerated.
“It was really sort of heralded as this major change in corrections, but the reality is that by the time the bill got passed it was very watered down,” Mullett said.
“In Pennsylvania, life is life”
Decarcerate PA has other changes in mind, including ending mandatory life without parole, appealing mandatory minimum sentencing, and taking a public health approach to drug and alcohol addiction, such as rehabilitation, rather than sending people to prison.
“We are advocating for more substantial, long-term policy changes that would make a more serious impact than the minor tweaks that have come out of the legislature so far,” Mullett said.
Decarcerate PA is planning on concentrating its efforts on ending mandatory life without parole and is working with allies such as the Human Rights Coalition to build a state-wide campaign.
“We are trying to shift the discourse by calling it ‘death by incarceration,’” Mullett said. “In Pennsylvania, life is life. So you are actually being sentenced to die in prison.”
Next steps include building its presence outside of Philadelphia in cities such as Reading, Allentown and Harrisburg.
Photo via Decarcerate PA on Flickr