Karen Heller: More Pa. prisons won't solve root problem of crime, recidivism

This undated photo shows Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel. (AP Photo)

One in 200 adults is in prison, a number that makes no one happy.

  • While the funding for other departments was slashed, the corrections budget keeps growing.
  • Two prisons are scheduled to close in June and the Commonwealth is spending a projected $600 million on three new facilities.

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.


Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter at @kheller.