Reading Eagle: Protest marchers stop in city, decry prison construction

Reading Eagle

Exhausted after walking from Pottstown to Reading on Wednesday, Melissa Gamble took time to discuss why she was marching from Philadelphia to Harrisburg to protest planned construction of two new state prisons.

"I'm marching for women who are incarcerated and have little hope," she said during a stopover in Reading. "I was once one of them waiting in prison for help that never came."

Gamble, 50, founder of a Philadelphia agency what works with women coming out of prison, is participating in the March For A People's Budget: Stop Prison Expansion Now.

About 50 members of Decarcerate PA left Philadelphia Saturday on a 10-day, 113-mile pilgrimage to Harrisburg, where they plan to rally June 3 on the steps of the state Capitol.

The marchers arrived spent Wednesday night in Fellowship Hall at Hopewell Mennonite Church. The march continues today, with the next stopover planned for Womelsdorf.

Coordinator Sarah Morris said the march is aimed at calling attention to the Corbett administration's plans to spend $685 million on building new prisons at a time of cuts in education and social services.

"Instead of building new prisons, the state should be reinvesting tax dollars in education, social services and health care," Morris said. "Those are things that would make our communities safer and stronger."

Decarcerate PA, a grass-roots coalition of labor and reform groups, advocated a three-part program - stop prison construction, reduce the number of inmates and reinvest the savings in communities.

A panel of educators and activists took the Corbett administration to task during a panel discussion that drew about 100 persons to the church Wednesday evening.

Panelist Bryan Sanguinito, president of the Reading Education Association, decried the inequity between spending on education and incarceration.

"Reading spends about $7,200 per student each year, while it costs about $35,000 a year to keep a person in prison," he said. "Our school board is planning to cut 15 to 25 teachers. Our students deserve better than that."

Cutting teachers, Sanguinito argued, is a formula for increasing violence in the community.

Other panelists included Rita Shah, a professor at Elizabethtown College; Tonya Thames-Taylor, a professor at West Chester University; Lorenzo Canizares, an organizer with the Pennsylvania State Education Association; and Hakim Ali of Philadelphia, prison reform activist.

Berks County Judge Jeffrey K. Sprecher, who attended the discussion, praised the group's efforts.

In his book, "Justice or Just This?" Sprecher criticizes mandatory sentencing policies that give judges little leeway in meting out punishment in criminal court.

"We need a movement for change" he told the marchers. "We need the things you're doing."

What: Ten day, 113-mile march from Philadelphia to Harrisburg to protest the Corbett administration's plan to build new prisons.

Who: Organized by Decarcerate PA, a grassroots coalition of prison reform and labor groups based in Philadelphia.

When: Plan to rally at noon Monday on the steps of the Capitol in Harrisburg.

Objective: Protest the plans to spend $685 million to build new state prisons at a time of cuts in education and social services. Crime would be curtailed more efficiently by reinvesting the money in communities, the group contends.

More information:

Reading Eagle: Ian Maule
Professor Rita Shah speaks Wednesday during a panel discussion at Hopewell Mennonite Church in Reading, where marchers protesting prison construction ended their day's march.

Contact Ron Devlin: 610-371-5030 or