Written by Damon C. Williams
Thursday, 06 June 2013 12:04
Increased education funding and the deceleration of prison expansion statewide were the two major themes of pro-education, pro-prison reform group Decarcerate PA as it concluded a 100-mile march to the state capitol to hand-deliver their demands.
Decarcerate PA’s movement comes as Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has eliminated roughly a billion dollars from the education budget while looking for extra funds to build several new prisons.
Decarcerate PA — and umbrella group of several grassroots organizations — began the march on May 25 to bring particular attention the Department of Corrections request for a $68 million increase in additional capital improvement funds and for the General Assembly to cancel two prisons — one at the current site of SCI Graterford and the other at a location in Montgomery County.
“Pennsylvania does not want, does not need and cannot afford any more prisons,” said Decarcerate PA Spokesman Brian Mertens. “We want to see out taxpayer dollars invested in the things that make our communities stronger, like education, health care and social services, not in building more prison cells.”
To the group’s point, last April, Corbett and Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel held a dedication of a new, $200 million prison complex — State Correctional Institution on the grounds of SCI Rockview — and has recently began filling out its 2,000 beds. While prison officials say the new prison will replace the soon-closing Cresson and Greensburg state prisons, it’s the fact that the state is closing — and replacing — prisons at an alarming clip while public education suffers round after round of funding cuts that gall Decarcerate PA members.
While the School District of Philadelphia faces a roughly $304 million budget gap, Decarcerate PA also points out the administration’s cuts have affected other counties as well - including Dauphin County, which faces education cuts of nearly $11 million, and the Harrisburg school district losing $3 million.
State Representative Ron Waters, a speaker during the rally, said he believes in Decarcerate PA’s mission and that the current tough-on-crime mandate is clearly not working.
“The reason I was asked to be a speaker is because I have a long-standing history of trying to introduce legislation and work with the Department of Corrections to figure out how we can be more effective in terms of reducing crime. Decarcerate PA is on the end result of achieving that,” Waters said. “Our ability to deal with legislation that is more geared toward not being just tough on crime, but smart on crime. The tough on crime movement has caused the prison population explosion, but out streets aren’t safer.”
Waters’ recent legislation, House Resolution 191 — which recently passed with overwhelming bipartisan support — forces the state to recognize youth violence as a public health epidemic, and for Waters, this resolution will go far in reaching youth before they take a criminal turn and end up housed in one of the state’s sparkling new prisons.
“On the flip side, we people that are being challenged in the communities with dealing with living in war zone-like environments and are exposed to domestic violence, street violence and the violence in the entertainment media, which leads [the youth] to act out,” Waters said, adding that the youth also experience the sounds of ringing gunshots and hovering police helicopters on a daily basis. “My resolution deals with youth violence as an epidemic and what we are going to do to make sure we have the educational apparatus in place — teachers, police, parents and anyone else who interacts with the youth — to make sure those children, some as traumatized as soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, are getting the held and resources they need.
“You can’t build your way out of the situation,” Waters added. “If [the governor and other legislators] were really tough on crime, where’s the proof? Where is the reduced crime? The streets of Philadelphia and in other parts of the state are still very highly dangerous, and you can’t just build more prisons to fix it.”
Back in Harrisburg, Decarcerate PA delivered a similar message.
“We’ve written letters, circulated petitions, held protests and even engaged in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience,” said Decarcerate PA member Leana Cabral. “Governor Corbett and legislators like to talk about being prison reformers, but they don’t walk the walk.
“So we walked all the way to Harrisburg to make sure they we won’t go away until Pennsylvania stops building prisons and starts reinvesting in our communities.”
Contact staff writer Damon C. Williams at 215-893-5745 or firstname.lastname@example.org.