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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Philadelphia Police and Jail Time

If you’ve ever read the gospels or even the Sermon on the Mount, you know that one of the most charitable works of mercy you can do is to visit somebody in prison. While I don’t have any friends in prison, years ago I once spent a night in jail when a police van picked me up in Center City because the cops were looking for a red haired felon. Faster than you can say “melting snow in March,” I was ordered into the back of the van where I was shocked to find ten other confused-looking guys, all of them with red hair. Together we were taken to the Roundhouse, and then put in a lineup while an unseen witness behind a one-way glass panel examined our faces. I stood there nervously while the witness tried to identify somebody (she couldn’t). We were then summarily dismissed, and told to find our own way home.

Being in a lineup was everything I’d seen on TV: you stand on an elevated platform or stage with the other suspects. You look straight ahead. You do not smile or grimace. In front of you is the big dark glass panel behind which the victim or victims of the crime scrutinize you. Tension mounts like the build up of steam in a shower stall. If there are chorus lines in Purgatory, this was it. I certainly don’t recommend it as an “experience.”

In my travels around the hood, I’ve heard too many people comment that they know somebody on parole, or that they are on parole themselves. I find it a very sad thing that so many people spend time behind bars for drug related offenses, and that so many violent offenders go free.

While the United States accounts for just 5% of the world’s population, it houses 25% of the world’s prison population. Twenty-five percent is astounding. These numbers do not reflect a rise in violent crime but in the number of drug offenders. In fact, the numbers of incarcerated drug offenders has risen 1200% since 1980. Today there are over 500,000 people in the nation’s prisons for drug-related offenses.

Meanwhile, as the economy continues to wobble, petty (potentially violent) crime seems to be on the upswing. Just a couple of months ago a neighbor pf mine was stopped on our street by three people who lunged at her from a parked car. These intruders from another neighborhood pointed a gun at her and demanded her groceries, a small bag of snacks from the local deli. They also took three dollars. Had she resisted or screamed for help, the results could have been devastating.

The Mercer Street bandits, no doubt, are on other crime sprees as I write this column. Someday they’ll be caught. They’ll hold up the wrong person and then the ugly story will be all over Fox News. Perhaps they’ll even be a lineup where the victims can ID the crooks. These are the people who belong in jail, rather than the Susan Finkelstein’s of the world (Finkelstein, in case you forget, was the woman who allegedly offered sex in exchange for World Series tickets).

Jail the Mercer Street bandits, by all means, but send the hopeless drug addict nabbed in front of WAWA while copping a bag to get through the day, to rehab or a hospital, but don’t waste our tax dollars housing him in a prison for a year.
The booming state prison population in Pennsylvania has grown by 21% in just 6 years, from 37,995 in 2001 to more than 49,300 today, according to Marc Goldberg, deputy secretary for administration at the State’s Department of Corrections. Mr. Goldberg speculates that the state prison population is expected to grow at an average of 4% each year through 2012.

In 2009, I spoke with filmmakers Cindy Burstein and Tony Heriza about their documentary film, “ConcreteSteel&Paint,” about a group of Graterford Correctional prisoners and neighbors (some of them victims of violent crime) coming together to paint a Mural Arts Project mural dedicated to “healing.” Ms. Burstein, who also works as Adjunct Professor of media and cultural studies in the Film & Media Arts Dept. at Temple University, said that the documentary comes along “at the right time.”
“The number of people in prison since the late 1970s, when the prison population was about 300,000, is now up to two million. A lot of that has to do with the drug laws of the 1980s, as well as sentencing laws that are keeping non violent offenders in jail for longer periods of time,” she told me.
With that said, let’s go after the real criminals.

Thom Nickels

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