With convention protests looming, city is readying Holmesburg Prison

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Holmesburg Prison could be put back into service to house convention protesters.

The city's shuttered Holmesburg Prison will be available during the Democratic National Convention to hold arrested protesters if necessary.

Shawn Hawes, spokeswoman for the city's prisons system, said the facility is being readied on an if-needed basis for the convention, July 25 to 28.

"If we had to activate Holmesburg, that would be out of necessity for a mass-arrest kind of processing situation," she said. "We're always ready to open whenever necessary, so, like the city, we're hoping for the best, preparing just in case."

Hawes was quick to say that the portion of the prison to be used is the recently renovated gymnasium - currently available for overflow when the city's jails are over capacity - not the cell blocks where horror movies have been filmed.

The gym has 100 beds, showers, and air-conditioning, Hawes said. Typically, processing a person takes from eight to 24 hours before that person can post bail or be transferred to another facility.

Built in 1896 and in use until 1995, the prison on Torresdale Avenue has a grim and controversial history.

It was once used for biochemical research projects using inmates as test subjects. It also was the site of major riots and the subject of a scathing report on hundreds of rape cases in the 1970s.

The news website Billy Penn first reported that Holmesburg would be activated during the convention.

Hawes said that given the city's move to decriminalize certain minor offenses associated with demonstrations, officials are not expecting large numbers of arrests at the convention.

A bill to downgrade "nuisance crimes," such as blocking traffic, failure to disperse, and disorderly conduct, passed in City Council last week.

"If you are committing an act that brings you here, you've committed a criminal act," Hawes said.

City officials have said they do not want a repeat of the Republican National Convention, where police arrested 400 protesters.

After the arrests in 2000, the city was smacked with several wrongful-arrest lawsuits. Insurance covered settlements in those cases.

The convention's host committee has an insurance policy for this year that covers, among other things, general liability against lawsuits.

The insurance and the prison activation do little to curb concerns of the American Civil Liberties Union, which sent a letter to the city last week asking for clarification on what will and will not be permitted when it comes to protesters.

The city met with the ACLU and provided answers, but the responses are murky in some cases.

For instance, protesters without permits "probably" won't be arrested, Kenney said.

There is no camping allowed overnight in FDR Park, but it's unclear what happens if protesters refuse to leave. At a press club luncheon in Washington on Wednesday, Kenney again promised that protesters would be treated fairly.

"We've done big events before, and we are not being restrictive to permits. . . . We're ready and willing and able to have people exercise their First Amendment rights," he said. "What's the sense of having a democracy if you can't say what you think and protest when you want to?"

In preparations for the Republican National Convention, Cleveland has purchased 11 conversion vans, some to be used to transport prisoners.

Cleveland officials are also considering moving inmates from the county jail to outlying facilities to create space for protesters if needed.

Philadelphia has issued 13 demonstration permits to date. In total, the permits' "expected attendance" numbers predict more than 50,000 people.

jterruso@phillynews.com

215-854-5506@juliaterruso

Staff writer Jonathan Tamari contributed to this article.

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