United Methodist Church Bishop speaks out against prison expansion

Letters: Gov. Corbett, stop building prisons

November 20, 2012

WITH Pennsylvania closing classrooms, canceling general assistance, and still facing a budget deficit, I urge the governor to reconsider his plans to expand Pennsylvania's already-massive prison system.

At a recent press conference announcing the passage of HB135 - a component of the Justice Reinvestment legislation aimed at reducing the state's prison population - Gov. Corbett said: "The answer isn't always to build bigger prisons. Sometimes the answer lies in smarter solutions that help us build fewer prisons and better communities."

I applaud the governor for his willingness to take on the issue of prison reform. And yet, with the state trying to save money and reduce our prison population through these recent reforms, I must ask: Why is the governor continuing to build new prison beds?

Gov. Corbett is just now beginning construction on two new prisons in Montgomery County. The new facilities will contain 4,100 beds and cost $400 million to build. A record 51,000 people are already confined within Pennsylvania prisons, and those numbers continue to grow every year. Indeed, over the last 40 years the size of the state prison system has increased by over 700 percent. This is largely due to the overrepresentation of those convicted of low-level and nonviolent drug offenses.

Overcrowding plagues the state system, which operates at 115 percent of capacity. But we cannot build ourselves out of this crisis. Disproportionate investment in prison expansion has diminished attention to viable community-based alternatives and has weakened the concept that prison should be the punishment of last resort. Most importantly, ignoring effective alternatives to incarceration and depending on prisons to solve our problems hurts families and devastates local communities.

As a faith leader, I join with other Pennsylvanians concerned about our state's priorities. The governor called for $860 million in education cuts in the 2011-12 budget and supported an additional $100 million cut in his proposed 2012-2013 state budget. He led the way in eliminating General Assistance, which has left over 68,000 people across Pennsylvania without much-needed temporary cash assistance. At the same time, he is building three new prisons and expanding nine others, costing taxpayers $685 million.

Given the high rates of recidivism, our prisons do not provide a good return on investment. According to a study by the Pew Center on the States, 39.6 percent of Pennsylvania prisoners released were sent back to prison within three years. If our prison policies are failing more than a third of the time, and we know that there are more humane, effective alternatives, it is time to fundamentally rethink how we treat and rehabilitate our prisoners. Our system must seek to restore people, not tear apart families and communities.

We can no longer afford business as usual. Investing in communities is the only meaningful and moral way to reduce crime and strengthen public safety.

We need to recognize that we can reform our prison system without building new prisons. I am calling on Gov. Corbett to cancel the prison construction in Montgomery County and instead invest that money in a safer, healthier Pennsylvania.

Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

Eastern Pa. Annual Conference

United Methodist Church