Why Replace the House of Corrections?
Philadelphia's House of Corrections first opened in 1874, and was later renovated in 1927 - built on the same site and using the same materials. As of May 31, 2015 the facility census stood at 1,526 - well above its permanent capacity of 1,250. 228 inmates were housed in triple cells (intended for housing 2 inmates). Twenty-three inmates were housed in temporary beds (in the hospital dormitory).
A long list of deficiencies currently riddle the House of Corrections, rendering the facility uninhabitable for the incarcerated and unfit working conditions for correctional officers. The following are a handful of current issues affecting the facility:
- The facility lacks a fire suppression system (not code compliant).
- There are no controls to electronically open cell doors hampering an emergency evacuation.
- There is no automated switch-over to auxiliary power, must be done manually taking nearly an hour under ideal conditions.
- Current Federal regulations (Prison Rape Elimination Act) require video surveillance in all inmate areas not under constant watch. This facility has none.
- There is no modern HVAC system. Many of the inmates confined there suffer chronic conditions (e.g. Diabetes) or are on medications such as psychotropics that make them heat sensitive.
- Hazardous materials may be present. No recent survey has been conducted to determine lead or asbestos levels which may be present in the facility. During a recent renovation of the visitor waiting area asbestos floor tiles were discovered and removed.
Other frequently asked questions
Would this increase the 'school-to-prison' pipeline?
No. A replacement prison would replace the current House of Corrections, along with many temporary spots at the Detention Center, bed-for-bed.
Why spend money on prisons when the Philadelphia School District remains underfunded?
This would not be a 'choice' putting prisons over schools, or vice versa. Specifically, Philadelphia Schools and Philadelphia Prisons draw on two completely separate funding sources. City Council has continually increased the City contribution to the Philadelphia School District, picking up slack left behind by the Commonwealth. This represents due diligence on a replacement for a prison that was built shortly after the Civil War.
Why spend this money on land and not social services?
Philadelphia currently offers a wide-range of social services for the incarcerated, but new facilities would give the City a chance to both expand those services, while housing and processing the incarcerated safely, securely and humanely.
What is the land’s potential for reuse other than a prison?
7777 State Rd. was home to Northern Shipping decades ago. While the hope had existed for the return of industrial or port-related activity, the practical reality emerged that using 7777 as a site for a HoC replacement is likely the most viable option. Consolidating prison services within the current layout would allow the City to keep costs down by not duplicating costs elsewhere, or transport inmates to and from facilities.
Why push forward if the likely next mayor has been so clearly opposed to it?
Purchasing 7777 is one of a number of options and steps. The next Mayor would not only have to make the decision on if a prison is built, but that person would have tremendous say in what that prison looked like. By utilizing emerging best practices in prisoner management and service delivery, Philadelphia can safely and securely house the incarcerated while working to bring the total inmate population down.
The owner paid $100 for the property and is now going to get money from the city? That sounds suspicious. Please explain.
7777 State Rd. consists of two parcels, one 58 acres (7777-R) and one consisting of 13 acres, which is controlled by another bank. The site was the home of the old Northern Shipping terminal and has been vacant for at least the last 20 years.
Since attempts in the 2000s to turn the properties into residential development, the parcels fell into Sheriff Sale and, after placing a minimum bid of $100, BNP reclaimed the property and assigns the bid to 7777 Philadelphia PA Loan Associates LLC. A full timeline on the parcel can be found here.
That land is zoned for residential use. Can a prison even go there?
The parcel would require re-zoning to I-3 if this plan were to move forward.
Why not build residential?
There was a proposal in the early part of the 2000s to turn the properties into a residential development called Independence Pointe. Due to the economic downturn and counter-suits filed by the partners against each other, the property ended up in default for $31.6 million.
Why 7777? Can't we build a prison somewhere else?
In 2011 at the recommendation of the City Planning Commission the Capital Programs Office contracted for a ten year plan to assess facility conditions, a prison population projection and to advise on a long range capital plan. The consultant team recommended replacing HoC as soon as possible.
The proposal included three recommended sites for a replacement facility in proximity to the current jail complex: The existing Holmesburg Prison, Riverview Nursing Home , 7777 State Road the property on the south side of CFCF.
Using Holmesburg would require extensive demolition and potential hazmat abatement. A new facility in that space would congest and heavily impact the surrounding residential neighborhood. The Riverview home is under the control of the Health Department and is still an active housing facility. The adjacent State Road property has since been found to be vacant, in foreclosure and is believed to be capable of supporting a new facility similar in size to CFCF. The on-campus access to other prison services (medical treatment clinics, mental health services) and resources (main food plant) would minimize ongoing staff and transportation costs.
Is this really the best use for our waterfront?
Purchasing this land now gives the City options later. For example, if environmental testing finds the land is unsuitable for a prison, the City can back out of a deal. Similarly, if the City finds a suitable commercial tenant (industrial or port-related, for example), those plans can be investigated. However, the parcel has remained vacant for more than two decades.
Logistically, 7777 offers an obvious replacement possibility. The on-campus access to other prison services (medical treatment clinics, mental health services) and resources (main food plant) would minimize ongoing staff and transportation costs.
Even though we are straddling administrations, the need for a City jail will persist. The system is already operating nearly 1,300 inmates above design capacity.
There is a pending overcrowding lawsuit in Federal Court which will go to trial in 2016. Although filed several years ago, we have been able to satisfy the court’s concerns regarding triple celling and conditions until now with the understanding that we would plan to improve conditions and relieve the overcrowding. Replacing HoC would accomplish both.
Isn't the City actively working to reduce the prison population?
Yes. The City of Philadelphia was recently awarded a grant in this area.
This proposal represents the City’s first concerted effort in over forty years to ensure humane conditions of confinement and to meet constitutional and correctional standards
The Prisons and other members of the City’s Criminal Justice Advisory Board have applied and won the first round of a foundation grant to reduce the number of Pretrial Detainees in custody. If awarded the MacArthur foundation grant, the City and criminal justice community can reduce the need for such a large system but unless physical plant conditions are improved, we will have a smaller jail system operating in substandard facilities.
Even if there is a drastic reduction in the prisons population there is no danger of being saddled with “excessive jail beds”. Temporary areas now housing inmates can be closed and existing facilities can be reduced to function at their original design capacities if and when the prison population is reduced.
Can we wait until the City works to reduce population?
Simply put: no. The last four times Philadelphia built a prison, it was forced to do so by the Federal government. The prison system was under continuous federal and state court supervision from the late 1970s until 2003. The litigation costs were substantial and the City was forced to build four correctional facilities during that time (CFCF, PICC, ASD and the Riverside facility). As such, Philadelphia had little control of the process. A prison population cap was imposed, and any time the prison census exceeded the cap inmates were immediately released.
Diligent efforts are underway to control and reduce the Prison population. Citywide criminal justice agency efforts have been somewhat successful (9,300 in 2008 and at 8,000 today) However, it is far less likely that the population could be reduced by the amount or inmates needed to eliminate overcrowding and close the House of Correction. In the meantime conditions at HOC continue to worsen.