Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Montco Behind Bars

Graterford Prison as seen from the air.
The national prison expansion debate comes home to Montgomery County today.

The classic axiom of opposition is "Not in My Backyard."

And who wants a prison in their backyard?

Not the people who already have Graterford Prison in their backyard in Skippack and don't want it replaced with another one.

So they will hold a rally today from 4 to 6 p.m. at the intersection of Route 29 and Graterford Road to protest the construction of two new prisons on the grounds of SCI Graterford in Montgomery County.

According to a press release from Decarcerate, PA, a self-described statewide coalition of more than 75 organizations opposing prison construction and supporting policies that reduce the number of people in prison, the protest is part of a growing campaign against the controversial prison expansions.

On July 8, the group's views were published in an Op-Ed in the Philadelphia Daily News.

"The demonstration calls on Governor Corbett to cancel the construction while still in its early stages and reinvest the remaining tax dollars in institutions that strengthen communities," the release said.

“Pennsylvania does not need another prison,” Sarah Small of Decarcerate PA said in a press release e-mailed to The Mercury, a. “Other states are finding ways to reduce their prison populations and close prisons. It’s time Pennsylvania caught up to the rest of the country.”

What's wrong with this picture?
Last year, the Pennsylvania Independent reported that: "Pennsylvania’s corrections spending has increased by 649 percent since 1985 while prevention spending has been cut by nearly 90 percent since 2002, according to the Evidence Based Prevention and Intervention Support Center (EPIS)."

One expert quoted in that story reported: "Spending on four out of the five presented juvenile preventative programs in Washington resulted in crime decreasing by 10 to 18 percent with savings between $6,900 and $27,000 dollars. Even pre-school programs were listed as part of preventative measures the state could take to keep low-income children out of the system though the benefits were primarily unrelated to crime and corrections costs."
Indeed, according to this January report in The New Yorker, America's prison population tops Stalin's -- not a race one wants to win.

"The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about 220 people incarcerated for every 100,000 Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to 731," Adam Gopnik reported. "No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education."

Regular readers of this blog may recall similar figures from my April 8 blog post in which I quoted Fareed Zahkaria, who wrote:
"In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.
"In 2011, California spent $9.6 billion on prisons, versus $5.7 billion on higher education. Since 1980, California has built one college campus; it's built 21 prisons. The state spends $8,667 per student per year. It spends about $50,000 per inmate per year."

Graphic courtesy of U.S. News and World Report.
The same thing is going on in Michigan, according to this May article in U.S. News and World Report:

"Our public universities are a major driver of Michigan's economy yet we are spending more on a prisoner in one year than we are to help a Michigan student go to college for four years. This investment strategy is upside down if we want to attract business investment and good paying jobs," Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, a council of CEOs and other top executives from Michigan's largest companies, said to David Brodwin of U.S. News.

Brodwin found:
Where would we rather invest public dollars, classrooms that keep
our children out of prison, or more expensive prisons cells that
keep them out of being productive members of society?
Some states, notably North Carolina, choose to educate. North Carolina's economy is similar to Michigan's, but it spends much more on higher education. The University of North Carolina gets nearly four times as much state support per student as Michigan schools. As a result a four year degree costs in-state students $38,215 in Michigan but only $18,887 in North Carolina.  
You don't need a Ph.D. in economics to predict which state will field the most talented and productive workforce. Today, North Carolina and Michigan rank about even in economic performance. But 30 to 40 years ago, North Carolina lagged way behind, whereas Michigan led. Since then, North Carolina's investments and Michigan's disinvestments have leveled the playing field. North Carolina offers far more to support knowledge-based businesses that pay high wages and fuel the state's economy.

An earlier Decarcerate PA protest.
Decarcerate, PA points out that: "Governor Corbett’s 2012-2013 budget eliminates General Assistance, cuts $309 million from independent living and community services for seniors, and does little to make up for last year’s funding cuts to universities and the $840 million cut to public education. While Pennsylvania’s education is in dire need of increased funding, the proposed new prisons, called SCI Phoenix I and II, will cost Pennsylvania $400 million. The new prisons, which according to the Department of Corrections will replace the current SCI Graterford, will add over 800 new beds to Graterford’s existing capacity. They also include a 100-bed death row and a new women’s unit at a time when the state’s prison population is decreasing."

The prison expansion also poses serious environmental concerns. Excavation runoff from SCI Phoenix will collect in a sediment basin within the nesting grounds of numerous bald eagle mates.

The Pennsylvanians rallying Tuesday imagine a different set of spending priorities for their state.

“Of all things, Skippack doesn’t need more prison beds, and it definitely doesn’t need a new death row,” said David Onion. “Prisons don’t make us stronger or safer. Despite the name SCI Phoenix, these new facilities will not lift Pennsylvania from the ashes of Governor Corbett’s broken priorities," the release said.

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