WITF: Anti-prison activists to rattle Capitol cage Monday

WITFWritten by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Jun 2, 2013 8:09 PM

Roughly 50 anti-prison activists are on the last leg of a protest march from Philadelphia to Harrisburg. Decarcerate PA will rally at the state Capitol Monday to decry the $400 million construction of two new prisons in Montgomery County set to replace an older facility in 2015.

Marching with the group is Malissa Gamble, who said she spent 15 months in a state prison for burglary and "a host of other crimes" a decade ago. She says more than new facilities, the state needs better prison programs on parenting, job training, and housing to help inmates transition back into their communities.

"And I'm not saying they all are not there. I'm saying that I have been a witness to them not being there. Or either they are so outdated that they don't exist. I think the money that Tom Corbett is using to build those jails would be better served providing programs that are usable," she said. The prison projects were first approved under the Rendell administration and re-bid under Gov. Corbett.

"What I'm saying is that they are not needed for -- there's no need for new jails," said Gamble. "We can work with the ones that are already here."

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections said the new facilities would be more cost-efficient in terms of energy and more secure. The agency's secretary has said the move is part of a larger effort to "replace old capacity with new capacity."

Decarcerate PA takes issue with the fact that the new facility would add inmate capacity, despite the fact that the state prison population declined last year and is projected to keep shrinking.

Some of the group's members say they haven't been pleased with the responses they've gotten from the agency, which they say has failed to show them a cost-benefit analysis showing why building new prisons is smarter than rehabbing old facilities.

Sue Bensinger, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, says the agency's secretary hears Decarcerate PA's rallying cry, having met with the group "a number of times," but the department objects to the group's call to "just shut the money off."

"The Department of Corrections is tasked with incarcerating these individuals who have committed a crime against society," said Bensinger. "You know, we answer to the victims' community and there are times when individuals do need to be separated from society."

Last year, the state Department of Corrections was flat-funded for the first time in a over a decade. The agency has asked state lawmakers for a roughly $60 million state funding increase for the next fiscal year.