Posted by Bobby Henon on June 10, 2015 at 10:14 PM
The following opinion editorial ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer, June 10.
by: Bobby Henon
A bill I recently introduced in City Council is the first step in a process to explore purchasing land for a replacement prison complex at 7777 State Road. A new facility would potentially replace the House of Corrections, which was built in 1874, when Ulysses S. Grant was president.
I support this bill because we have a responsibility to replace the House of Corrections and provide appropriate conditions for inmates and corrections workers.
Some have argued that by considering this measure, Council is prioritizing the funding of prisons over schools. They worry about the symbolism of building a replacement prison when the city has so many other funding priorities. These fears are misplaced. If the city decides to build a replacement prison, it will not draw a single penny away from our schools.
Any conversation about replacing the House of Corrections must begin with cost and safety. The budget for Philadelphia's prison system exceeds the combined costs of the Departments of Streets and Health. This includes upkeep for the House of Corrections, a management nightmare of inefficient cell blocks, wasteful energy systems, and crumbling, unsafe infrastructure.
The facility houses a majority-minority population, nearly half of whom are between the ages of 18 and 29. The first step in ending the cycle of recidivism in Philadelphia is to treat people with respect and compassion. If we are serious about prison reform and reversing the recidivist pipeline flooding our jails, we have a responsibility to foster an environment for incarcerated individuals that is safe, clean, and secure.
The House of Corrections 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 unsafe? And how can we expect to truly rehabilitate the incarcerated if they are condemned to deplorable conditions?
No member of Council has been a stronger advocate than I am for the development of the Northeast Philadelphia waterfront and the creation of manufacturing and industrial jobs. However, the practical reality remains: The parcel the city is considering purchasing has been a vacant blight for more than 20 years. It is situated among the prison, a waste treatment facility, a scrap yard, and an auto auction. If a tenant hasn't surfaced by now, we have to acknowledge the efficiencies of a replacement prison within the same area instead of waiting another 20 years for an industrial tenant.
Rather than adding beds to our system, a replacement complex would give us a chance to prioritize services and help reduce our population. We can consolidate services in one central area instead of building elsewhere in Philadelphia, duplicating services at a greater cost.
Finally, the last four times Philadelphia built a prison, it was forced to do so by a federal judge. This not only removed the decision from our hands, but also prevented the city from managing the process and increased the cost. By planning ahead now, we can avoid losing our voice in the matter later. Philadelphia has already ceded control of its public schools to the commonwealth. I'm not comfortable ceding control over prisons to the federal government.
Even if we are able to capitalize on current efforts to reduce our prison population, we still must have safe facilities for the incarcerated.
The conversation about a replacement prison makes some uncomfortable, but, as the fifth-largest city in the country, it's one we must have. We have a responsibility to find the most safe, efficient, humane, and cost-effective way to operate our prison system.
I am holding a telephone town hall at 6 p.m. this evening to discuss the prison issue. Details are available at www.bobbyhenon.com.