Post-Gazette: Protesters of prison expansion march to Harrisburg

June 1, 2013 12:11 am

HARRISBURG -- A group of about 40 activists calling for a moratorium on new prison funding, left Philadelphia on Saturday on a nine-day-long march to Harrisburg for what it calls "a people's budget, not a prison budget."

Members of Decarcerate PA, a grass-roots organization with an eclectic group of protesters that include former prisoners, family members of current prisoners and students whose schools are being closed due to budget cuts, planned the march to bring awareness to cuts in education funding and to protest the construction of two new prisons outside Philadelphia in Montgomery County.

"We have a lot of folks doing it for a lot of different reasons," said Thomas Dichter, organizer of the rally. "We're trying to build our presence in Harrisburg while holding our legislators in Philadelphia accountable."

Mr. Dichter cited 23 schools that are slated to be closed in Philadelphia due to budget deficits, and said Decarcerate PA would rather see the money be put back into the community instead of being used for prison construction.

"We want the funds being used for prison construction to be reinvested into our schools and communities," he said. "When you are taking money away from schools, you are taking educational opportunities away from young people that they need for their future and you are greatly increasing the chances that they will end up in those prisons."

Construction on the two new facilities, State Correctional Institutions Phoenix I and II, began in the fall of 2012 beside the Graterford facility, which was built in 1929 and is one of the oldest prisons in the state.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Susan Bensinger said the two new prisons are meant to replace the old prison and save the state money in operation costs, though the DOC is not yet sure what will be the outcome of the old facility.

"It would be better financially to start construction of a new facility that would be lower cost to operate in the long run," she said. "The plan is to replace Graterford with Phoenix. We're not adding, we are replacing capacity."

The new facilities are designed to hold 4,100 prisoners, while the existing facility is equipped to handle around 3,300 inmates. The new Phoenix prisons will also house a unit for women.

The "March for a People's Budget" began with a rally in Center City, Philadelphia, and will end on June 3 at the state capitol in Harrisburg when state legislators reconvene to begin debating next year's budget.

The group is walking the entire way from Philadelphia to Harrisburg with support vehicles following them to provide food and water. They have been sleeping in churches and depending on the support of the people they meet along the way.

"We are operating on a shoestring budget. We're basically running on our own energy at this point," Mr. Dichter said.

Along the route, marchers stopped to rally on the courthouse steps in Norristown, protested in Skippack near the site of the new prison construction, held a community discussion with residents in Pottstown and held a panel discussion about the underground railroad with professors and scholars in Reading.

The organization plans to ask legislators to deny the Department of Corrections a $68 million increase in funding in this year's budget and cancel the construction of the two new Phoenix prisons, which have a price tag of about $400 million.

"The essential demand of this march is designed for our lawmakers," Mr. Dichter said. "We've seen cuts to education of over $1 billion yet at the same time there is $400 million being put into prison expansion. Our corrections budget is higher than our education budget now, which means we spend more money on the state pen than we do on Penn State."

Along with replacing the Graterford prison, the Department of Corrections expects to close two other prisons, SCI Greenburg in Hempfield and SCI Cresson in Cambria County, by the end of the state fiscal year on June 30, replacing them with a new facility, SCI Benner in Centre County. The inmate capacity will also remain nearly the same.

"It's about a wash," Ms. Bensinger said. "The beds we close at Cresson and Greensburg are almost exactly the same amount that we opened at SCI Benner. Meaning it's not additional bed space, it's replacement bed space."

Last year the Pennsylvania prison system saw its largest one-year decrease in inmate population since 1971 with a decrease of 454 prisoners across the state.

Josh Fatzick is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents' Association.

First Published June 1, 2013 12:00 am