Below is text of a floor speech delivered by Councilman Bobby Henon during the stated meeting of City Council on June 4 concerning the purchase of land that would potentially be the home for a replacement for the House of Corrections. Please check against delivery.
Thank you Council President. I want to speak on bill number 150406, which I introduced with the Administration a few weeks ago.
This bill has re-opened a historically uncomfortable debate – building a replacement prison. While the bill does not actually build a prison, I wholeheartedly believe we must do so.
First, the specifics of the bill: it authorizes the city to explore purchasing land for a prison complex at 7777 State Rd. to potentially replace the House of Corrections, which was first built when Grant was President. 1874.
I’d like to take the opportunity to correct the record on a number of points so we all have a chance to get the facts on this issue.
Some have argued that we are prioritizing prisons over schools. This is false for two reasons. This bill is merely an administrative tool that gives the city options. Also, if the city were to move forward and build a prison, it would not draw one penny from our schools. These are two completely different funding sources and on two different timelines.
Next, others have argued about the symbolism of building a new prison at a time of great need in other areas. I agree that we have need in other areas, but as the 5th largest city in the country, we have to be able to do more than one thing at a time.
In strict dollar terms, the House of Corrections is a management nightmare. Think inefficient, manual cell locks, wasteful energy systems and crumbling, unsafe infrastructure. Some specific examples include:
- Lack of a fire suppression system (not code compliant).
- No controls to electronically open cell doors hampering an emergency evacuation.
- Current Federal regulations (Prison Rape Elimination Act) require video surveillance in all inmate areas not under constant watch. This facility has none.
In human terms, it is a building fit for 1,250 permanent inmates that houses more than 1,500 on a regular basis. That includes three inmates in cells designed for two. Beds in temporary areas. Even the employee locker room has been combined with the visitor waiting area.
That infrastructure also serves as a workplace for more than 300 correctional officers. How can we expect to secure the best and brightest to take these jobs if their working conditions are like this? And how can we expect to truly rehabilitate the incarcerated if they are condemned to deplorable conditions?
Rather than adding beds to our system, a new complex gives us a chance to prioritize services and help reduce our population. We can consolidate services in one central area, rather than shipping inmates to separate locations.
Expanding elsewhere would mean lead to cost-factor increases in duplicating services and transporting inmates. By consolidating around our current resources, we can keep costs down.
Others have argued that this is a poor use of the waterfront, asking for the City to consider industrial or port-based activity.
The practical reality remains that, if the City purchases this property, that possibility still remains. Further, there is no one in this body more interested in protecting industrial space than I am. However, in the event we cannot lure a responsible commercial use, we have to consider a replacement for House of Corrections on land that has been vacant for two decades.
Finally, the last four times that Philadelphia built prisons, we were forced to do so by a Federal judge. This not only removes the decision from our hands, but also removes the opportunity to manage the process, and at a greater cost.
By planning ahead now, we can prevent losing our voice in the matter later. Philadelphia has already ceded control of our public schools to the Commonwealth. I'm not comfortable ceding similar control to the Federal government, on prisons.
I am holding 150406 today, so I have the chance to speak with the Holmesburg community next week. I will also be hosting a town hall meeting with anyone and everyone interested in getting the facts on this issue.
However, I look forward to bringing this up for a vote soon and will keep pursuing safer, consolidated facilities on State Rd. and hope my colleagues will consider the same and support this bill.
Thank you Mr. President.