former prisoners

Decarcerate PA Launches Platform, Prepares for Push

Last night a coalition of over sixty organizations and hundreds of individuals gathered to formally launch an ambitious campaign — to end mass incarceration in Pennsylvania. "Decarcerate PA" was initiated by ex-prisoners, prisoners families, and allies who are convinced that mass incarceration does far more harm than good.

Their 3-point platform outlines how state funds should be redirected from new prison and detention center construction into public schools, jobs and job training, critical safety net services, and non-punitive programs to address the root cause of violence. The coalition held an initial rally in August and plans another rally for April 5th.


"At a time when many other states across the country are exploring ways to shrink their prison population and close unnecessary facilities, Pennsylvania is moving in the opposite direction," writes Decarcerate PA. "Governor Corbett intends to spend $685 million to expand the state’s already massive prison system. This money will fund the
construction of three new state prisons and expand nine others. It will add 8,000 new beds to our prison system at a time when the governor cut $951 million in education spending, along with massive cuts to a host of other essential programs and services. We believe this is unacceptable, and so we came together to fight the proposed expansions."

So far, chapters are organized in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Participating organizations include Reconstruction Inc, Institute for Community Justice, Human Rights Coalition, and two organizations at SCI-Grateford -- the Vietnam Veterans Chapter 466 (Graterford) and the Villanova Alumnae Association at Graterford.


A New Yorker piece provides historical context:

In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.

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 two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. 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.

How did we get here?

There’s an essentially Northern explanation, focussing on the inheritance of the notorious Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia, and its “reformist” tradition; and a Southern explanation, which sees the prison system as essentially a slave plantation continued by other means.


[Rich Gardner attended the event on Friday and filed the following report:]

Yes, the DecarceratePA program has only been around for just a year, but was able to sign up in excess of 70 organizations who supported that nights' celebration and the goals of DecarceratePA in general. The goal is “Build Communities, Not Prisons!” Six activists gathered together a year ago and jointly decided that Governor Corbett's plan to spend $685 million to expand several prisons and construct a few new ones was a really bad idea. There are many better uses that Pennsylvanians could put that money towards, especially as education in our state is taking a $500 million hit at the same time. Presumably, that means we're spending less to educate our youth in order to pay for some increased prison capacity.

We had the head of the American Civil Liberties Union – Pennsylvania (ACLU-PA) speak. Very fortunately, ACLU-PA will be fully behind efforts to decarcerate in PA because that's his personal priority and well, he runs that organization. He felt “Overincarceration has reached epidemic proportions.” He pointed out the many problems that over-imprisonment of citizens causes the larger community and that reacting to low-impact crimes and misdemeanors by putting the offenders in jail is really a bad overreaction that takes people needlessly out of the community and puts them into places where they can no longer contribute.


Does it help anybody to keep filling the prisons? Another speaker told us that he explained to a Councilperson how privately-run prisons reap enormous profits from having on their premises, essentially, slave labor. The Councilperson was unaware of this, meaning that in general, private citizens are probably unaware of that aspect of the problem as well. The list of organizations that provided speakers to the event were One Love Movement, And Justice For All, Hearts On A Wire, Community College of Philadelphia Teacher's Union, Reconstruction, Youth Arts and Self-Empowerment Project and the Campaign for Non-Violent Schools, in addition to the above-mentioned ACLU-PA.

Speakers pointed out that mass incarceration is now the new Jim & Jane Crow and that the War on Drugs is an essentially anti-poor and anti-black policy. Speakers felt that our system as a whole is designed to divide us. A dispute arose in one of my conversations with a fellow member of an anti-war group when I referred to the “working and the middle classes.” He was a Communist and insisted that all non-owners of the means of production were working class and that there was no such group as the middle class. Are the two terms nothing more than an effort to divide the people or do they denote real and meaningful differences? Food for thought, I think.


Pennsylvania has more juveniles serving life sentences than any other state. The PA Department of Corrections has approximately 16,000 employees and more than 51,000 inmates. One of our speakers pointed out that telephone companies provide on 47 cents for every dollar that's paid on phone calls back to the Department of Corrections. There's a lot of money floating around in the prison industry and no one has a clear idea of where all that money goes, but prisoners themselves say that spending millions to expanding prisons does nothing to help them. All the benefits from expanding prisons go elsewhere.

State Senator Greenleaf is sponsoring Senate Bill 100 (PDF) that DecarceratePA approves of as well as Greenleaf's Senate Bill 1153. DecarceratePA is looking for people to fill all kinds of positions within the organization. There's plenty to do for everybody! Please join the effort to reduce prisons in our state.

Photos by Baba Bob Shipman, text by Amy Dalton & Rich Gardner