Philadelphia Tribune: Protestors block prison construction

PhillyTrib.comWritten by 
Friday, 23 November 2012 15:31
Members of DecarceratePA block the entrance to two new prison construction sites near SCI Graterford. The grassroots organization is calling for a reduction in the prison population and reinvesting the millions slated to be spent on the new facilities into community programs. — PHOTOGRAPH FROM DECARCERATEPA

At a town hall meeting in Philadelphia held at the city’s Museum of Art, Gov. Tom Corbett made a statement that his numerous critics say is in total opposition to a newly funded building project.

At the meeting, which was hosted by radio personality Dom Giordano, Corbett said he would build no new prisons.

“When it comes to the construction of prisons, not only have I not added new prisons, I’ve stopped the building of prisons,” said the governor. “Forty percent of every tax dollar you spend goes to education in Pennsylvania. Right now over $9 billion goes to K-12. It is the highest state funding has ever been in the history of Pennsylvania.”

In October, Corbett signed off on an extensive legislative package aimed at reducing recidivism and the high cost of incarceration. Corbett said that “it was time to start thinking smarter about how the state incarcerates defendants and that the answer isn't always building new prisons.”

But on Monday, Nov. 19, seven members of a grassroots organization known as DecarceratePA held a protest blocking the entrance to the construction site of two new prisons right beside SCI Graterford. The organization is calling for the state to stop the construction of the new prisons and to reinvest the money, more than $600 million, in communities; as well as calling for an end to mass incarceration, and a reduction of the prison population.

“We blocked the entrance to the construction site using school desks and a mock-up of a little red school house to illustrate the point we’re trying to make. The state is spending over $400 million on this project, money the state doesn’t have to throw around,” said Thomas Dichter, spokesman for the group. “Our message is this money should be used for community reinvestment, for education, housing and social services, services that Governor Corbett has cut funding for. He eliminated general assistance for needy families, yet can fund the construction of new prisons. This just shows a lack of reality. He stated at a town hall meeting that he wouldn’t build new prisons and signed off on prison reform. He’s not about prison reform. What we’re doing is putting the Pennsylvania prison system on trial.”

In 2011, the Corbett Administration halted construction of a $200 million prison construction project in Fayette County that would have housed 2,000 inmates, but it proceeded with prison construction projects in Centre County and at SCI Graterford, The Corbett Administration agreed to pay Walsh Construction and Heery International $315.8 million to design and build a facility capable of housing 4,100 offenders on the Graterford State Prison grounds. The total cost of the project was estimated at $365 million.

Dichter said the new construction represents an expansion of mass incarceration in Pennsylvania and a continuation of policies that lock people up instead of giving the communities the resources they need to thrive. The money used to build these prisons is money that is being stolen from the schools, healthcare and re-entry programs, social services, and the environment, Dichter said.

“Corbett said he wants to shrink the prison system — so why is he expanding it?” Dichter asked. “We would like to see more legislators from Philadelphia on board with this, since Philly residents are over-represented in the state’s prison population. These projects are in the early stages, so it’s not too late to pull the funding for them and reinvest the money where it’s most needed.”

Among the projects related to incarceration that lost funding under the Corbett Administration was a successful program for ex-offenders called Philly ReNew. State Senator Anthony H. Williams managed to get the program a $50,000 grant to keep the program operating for a while longer. Philly ReNew began operations in 2008 and took in 150 men a year, ex-offenders from not only city detention facilities but also state and federal inmates who were being released. People who were non-violent offenders, violent offenders, both men and women and, sex offenders were assisted in putting their lives back together.

“If state government does not pay on the front end, then we will continue to pay $30,000 to $40,000 per year per individual on the back end, and by they way, they will be younger and in prison longer,” said Williams. "That is an unsustainable economic model for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”