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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Spirit Newspapers: Philly's New Prison

Jails: If You Build It, They Will Come – The Local Lens

“If you build it, they will come.”
I’m talking about a new prison for the City of Philadelphia in the Holmesburg section of the city. If you’ve ever traveled to Holmesburg in the Northeast, you know that this area has been heavily targeted as a blight zone filled with a waste treatment plant and a number of prisons near State Road.
While I feel sorry for the residents of Holmesburg—prisons tend to be ugly architecturally—I have to wonder where these residents were when the powers that be started to turn this section of the city into Prison Central. I can’t imagine residents of the Riverwards allowing this to happen in their neighborhoods.
Let’s go back to the year 2007. At that time, Churchill Development, a Bridgewater, New Jersey developer, announced plans to build Independence Point, a $460 million residential community. Sounds like a good idea, right? Churchill had purchased 100 acres of the State Road land from an organization called Northern Associates. Although the project was initially greeted with great enthusiasm, plans for that residential community never materialized. The property wound up in the hands of BNP Paribos of New York. At that point it was valued at $7.3 million.
There was no movement for a number of years until Philadelphia City Councilman Bobby Henon had a “dunghill mountaintop” vision (this would be the opposite of a Martin Luther King, Jr. vision) to engineer a City Council bill giving a green light to the city’s Commission of Public Property to buy the land for another prison. Apparently, Henon sensed he would get city support because Mayor Nutter had already earmarked $7.8 million for the Philadelphia Prison System to replace the House of Corrections, which had been in use since 1927.
City Council’s Committee on Public Property, having swallowed the Henon Kool Aid, voted to approve the bill to buy 58 acres of the riverfront land to build a new prison to replace the old jail.

The news of City Council’s initial approval for another prison caused me to rewrite that famous Emma Lazarus line:“Give me your tired, your poor, your johns and prostitutes: Give me your weed, Oxycontin and Percocet peddlers, and all deadbeat dads. Give me also the wretched refuse of the littered streets: hard drug dealers, parole violators, obstructers of sidewalks and traffic ticket non-payers….Send even the homeless to the Tower of Philadelphia (modeled after The Tower of London), so they can lift their lamp beside the Holmesburg waste treatment plant.”   

The city was eager to spend $7,265,299 for the 7777 State Road purchase from the company that now owned the land, a carpetbagger operation called Philadelphia Loan Associates, LLC, a New York-based group that should be fined for using the name Philadelphia.
But here’s the creepiest rub of all: The New York carpetbaggers bought the property for $100 (the price of a one way Amtrak ticket to New York) last year, and then sold it back to the city for the 7-digit figure mentioned above.
Is this not the most Machiavellian of backroom deals, perhaps completed with cigar smoke, poker chips and thuggish guards carrying loaded .45 revolvers?
After a public outcry, Councilman Henon suspended Bill 150406. But suspended does not mean eliminated—the Bill could be acted on before Council’s summer recess. Whatever happens, it is almost too late to save this section of the Northeast, which has seen their old factories and warehouses east of I-95 torched, and the implementation of so much public housing that much of the old tax base there had fled for greener shores.
A few questions worth asking are why the city needs to build so many prisons, who are we throwing in jail, and why?
While I don’t have any friends in prison, many 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 suspect. Faster than you can say “climate change,” 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 then put in a lineup while a witness behind a one-way glass panel examined our faces. There I stood nervously until the witness in question decided that she could not identify anybody in the lineup. Then the group of us was summarily dismissed and told to find our way home.
In those days I was naïve and expected an apology like, “Sorry to have inconvenienced you. Would you like a lift 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 your face. Tension mounts like the buildup of steam in a shower stall. If there are chorus lines in Hell, this was it. I don’t recommend it as an “experience.”
In my travels around the Riverwards, I’ve heard far too many people say that they know somebody on parole, or in prison. I think it is sad that so many people are behind bars for drug related offenses.
While the United States accounts for just 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses 25 percent of the world’s prison population. That is an astounding amount. 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 percent since 1980. Today there are more than 500,000 people in the nation’s prisons for drug-related offenses. The booming state prison population in Pennsylvania has grown by 21 percent in just 6 years: From 37,995 in 2001 to more than 49,300 in 2009. It is far higher today.
Meanwhile, as the economy continues to nose dive, petty (potentially violent) crime seems to be on the upswing. Last year a neighbor of mine was stopped on the street by three people who lunged at her from a parked car. As a side note, beware of people seated in parked cars pretending to be listening to music. These interlopers from another neighborhood pointed a gun at her and demanded the groceries she was carrying, a small bag of snacks from the local deli. They also took three dollars. Had she resisted or screamed for help, God knows what would have happened to her. People have died for less than three dollars.
These are the people who belong in prison, not the Oxycontin and Percocet dealers who pass their tiny discounted plastic bags behind parked cars in a Dunkin Donuts parking lot.
Obviously, the criminal justice system needs massive overhauling. A good first start would be to not build prisons in just one area of the city.