What is Prison Like in Pennsylvania?
Pennsylvania exemplifies the correctional problems plaguing most states in America. Pennsylvania has high number of inmates, too many prisons, too much of the state budget allocated for prisons, and too high a rate of recidivism. The prison population has increased 500 percent over the last 30 years in Pennsylvania. Many in the state are finally realizing that money would be better spent on programs that would reduce the high rate of recidivism instead of building new prisons. If the state directed its energy and funds to provide jobs to individuals on parole and probation, you would have a much reduced recidivism rate. Across our country, there is a growing realization that it is harmful not only to the non-violent offender to incarcerate him with violent inmates, but in the end, it is harmful to society. Prisonpath discussed one impact of the prison experience upon the nonviolent inmate in “The John Dillinger Syndrome”. The studies have also shown that the elderly population in our prisons has increased dramatically over the past three decades despite their low recidivism rate. The below article reports the current state of Pennsylvania’s correctional system.
By Karen Heller, Inquirer Columnist
Posted: March 14, 2013
During the last three decades, the Commonwealth’s prison population exploded by 500 percent to 51,000. Consequently, more Pennsylvanians live behind bars than reside in Harrisburg or Altoona. One in 200 adults is locked up, a number that makes no one happy.
Gov. Corbett and other officials want to shrink the nonviolent population. Still, while the funding for other departments was slashed, the corrections budget keeps growing, to almost $2 billion. Like college tuition, prison costs never go down.
“We’re in the middle of a revolution in criminal justice. Not even six months in, we’ve already made progress,” said State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Bucks-Montgomery), a Harrisburg leader in corrections reform who helped pass last year’s bill to keep low-risk offenders out of prison. “We shouldn’t be building any new prisons, but these are well on their way.”
Though two prisons are scheduled to close in June, the Commonwealth is spending a projected $600 million on three new facilities. Meanwhile, the governor espouses funds “being moved to the ‘front end’ of the justice system – victim services, local policing, county-based offender treatment, improved probation services.”
A new Centre County facility will open this spring. In Montgomery County, Phoenix East and West are beginning construction adjacent to Graterford and are scheduled to open in 2015. In total, the three new prisons will house a total of more than 6,000 inmates. Graterford, the Commonwealth’s largest facility. currently houses 3,693 inmates. The two prisons that are closing have almost 3,000, and one is way over capacity.
Graterford is slated for closure but policy opponents like Decarcerate PA have their doubts. A Pittsburgh facility was mothballed in 2005 only to reopen two years later. Every time a prison is marked for elimination, legislators from that region complain about the loss of jobs, though employee salaries and ballooning pension costs account for three-quarters of the corrections budget.
The investment now will pay off in the long run, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel told me. “Eventually, the maintenance costs of running Graterford were going to be too great,” he said. The plan is to eventually reduce the department’s 15,000-member staff through modernized facilities.
Wetzel also cited the need to transfer capital cases closer to Philadelphia – “since they spend more time in court” – and moving 100 female inmates nearer their families.
The $400 million construction cost for Montgomery County’s two prisons seems enormous to achieve these goals. Meanwhile, Wetzel told me, “We fully expect to see a reduction of 3,600 inmates in the next five years.”
“This is a gigantic waste of taxpayers’ money,” said William DiMascio of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which advocates for inmates and their families. “We’ve relied increasingly on incarceration as a response to crime, upping the ante on bricks and mortar, and less money on programming that might be effective in fighting recidivism.”
While 90 percent of Pennsylvania prisoners are eventually released, six in 10 will be rearrested or back in prison within three years, according to the Department of Corrections. The goal is to educate and train inmates for legitimate jobs, a path away from crime, though that portion of the corrections budget is being cut.
Meanwhile, nearly a fifth of Pennsylvania inmates are 50 or older. It costs far more to care for older inmates, though they are less violent and have lower recidivism rates. The state pays more than $37,000 annually to house a prisoner in Graterford and $51,000 at Laurel Highlands in Somerset County, which is basically a nursing home behind bars.
“Why focus on incarceration as if that’s the only solution to crime?” asked Sarah Morris of Decarcerate PA, a group fighting for reducing the number of Pennsylvania inmates. “We would rather see the money go to schools and health care. Why not look at the root causes?”
And policing. It makes no sense to spend more on prisons than smart policing and sentencing, halfway houses, and treatment centers. As Wetzel told me, “We hold every other profession to results, except corrections.” So far, the results are not impressive.
By Scott–Kairos Prison Ministry is changing lives for Christ in 6 PA State Penitentiaries. Even though the state system is still very corrections oriented, we are privileged to be able to provide faith-based programming to the residents. Those inmates who turn their lives over to Christ and learn to provide encouragement and support to their brothers and sisters inside, help to create a more positive environment inside the prison which results in less violence and reduces the likelihood of re-offending upon release.
By Duane–May God bless you for your PA prison involvement! Which prisons are you ministering in? We have found PA prisons to be very difficult to access. What do you recommend?
By Yvonne–So what is the root of the problem in PA? What have the studies shown? Which crimes are the most common? An interesting topic no doubt.
By Steve–Part of the high budget is beneficial, PADOC has been ACA accredited for quite some time, all of the correctional institutions at the state level pass ACA audits with flying colors, and in general, PADOC is usually in the top 3 states for quality of life and safety. That being said, PA also has some pretty draconian laws regarding drugs.
By Yvonne–Could you give us some ideas of the draconian laws regarding drugs in PA? Do they perhaps contribute to the wider problems?
Note the following about PA’s drug laws: “Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum drug laws require courts to impose “one size fits all” sentences on drug offend ers, regardless of their role in the crime, need for treatment, or prior criminal record. For example, a first conviction for possessing over 10 grams of methamphetamines requires a minimum sentence of 4 years in prison, regardless of whether there are an y extenuating circumstances. Given that 10 grams equals less than three teaspoons of sugar, these serious sentences are not necessarily being reserved for drug dealers. Currently, drug mandatory minimum sentences are a large –… Read more »
By Steve–I’m just going off observed stuff on this, I don’t have a stat for you, however, it seemed like the sentences given for drug possession were considerably longer than neighboring states.
Thanks Bradley, great info.
Well if you want to go to common usage, the United States is comonmly called a democracy. But we both know that it isn’t a democracy, but a representative republic, which is quite different. The Netherlands prison system may have some aspects of a mock socialist system, but at it’s core it is not. The government workers you mentioned would be the prisoners in this case. And if the prisoners were in control of the management, how long do you think they would remain in the prison? If I were in charge of my own incarceration the first thing I… Read more »