Is the commonwealth doing enough?

Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary has been closed since 1971. Pennsylvania’s prison secretary wants to close two more prisons.

(Excerpt from Andy Hoover’s Closing prisons isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. It’s a thing.)

Last Friday, Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced that the DOC will close two state prisons. He identified five finalists for closure.

Closing prisons is a good thing if it’s happening for the right reasons. Governor Tom Wolf said the closures would save the commonwealth money during a time when strains on the state budget are significant. Wetzel said transferring the inmates from closed prisons would be manageable.

But what happens when the department puts the same amount of people into a smaller space? A prison is like a small town of a few thousand people. Any time the population increases significantly in a short amount of time, it has the potential to strain resources and services.

We and our allies have raised concerns about the impact on the living conditions of inmates. John Hargreaves of the Pennsylvania Prison Society told PennLive, “When they run out of space, the dayrooms and the gyms are filled up with beds,” he said. “Those are the places the inmates go to get out and let out steam.” Since 2009, the population of Pennsylvania’s state prisons has decreased by 7.6 percent, from a peak of 52,000 to its present population of 48,000. The decrease amounts to roughly the population of two prisons..

Which sounds good. But is the commonwealth really doing enough to lower prison populations?

Other states have been more serious about ending mass incarceration than Pennsylvania has. Mississippi decreased its population 17 percent in two years by reforming its parole system. In Pennsylvania, the legislature and then-Governor Tom Corbett repealed our early release program in 2012.

Sometime this month, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project initiated by the commonwealth’s three branches of government to analyze data on the criminal justice system and to offer recommendations for a more efficient system, will release its final report. At a meeting last month, researchers for the project stated that, if every recommendation is implemented, our state prison population will drop one percent by 2022. That hardly qualifies as bold thinking.

Closing prisons is not a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just a thing. In our work on mass incarceration, the closing of prisons has never been an end unto itself. It’s a result of the goal we seek, and the goal we seek is a common-sense approach to sentencing and parole policy. If that’s why two state prisons are closing, that’s great. If the DOC does not carefully monitor conditions for the same amount of people in fewer spaces, then they can expect to hear from us and our allies again.

Read the full article here.

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We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.

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ACLU of Pennsylvania

ACLU of Pennsylvania

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.