Not just a Philly problem. Every community in Pa. has someone in state prison, new data show

Tuesday Morning Coffee: ‘The nation’s 40-year failed experiment with mass incarceration harms each and every one of us,’ a policy analyst said

By: - October 4, 2022 7:17 am

Like a lot of issues that come before the General Assembly, there’s a kind of legislative shorthand that takes hold when the conversation turns toward issues of crime, punishment, and imprisonment.

Namely, that the overwhelming majority of people serving time in the commonwealth’s sprawling, and hugely expensive, state prison system, come from the state’s two, largest cities.

But as newly released data make clear, while imprisonment rates vary statewide, every community — from Pittsburgh to Perkasie and from Aliquippa to Allentown — has residents behind bars.

The proof is in the numbers: The cities with the highest imprisonment rates are Chester (1,191 per 100,000 residents); Harrisburg (1,144 per 100,000 residents) and Uniontown, Fayette County (972 per 100,000 residents), the report showed.

As a matter of comparison, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh respectively have imprisonment rates of 463 and 276 per 100,000 residents, the data show.

A map of incarceration in Pennsylvania, by county
A map of incarceration in Pennsylvania, by county (Source: The Prison Policy Initiative/Public Interest Law Center).

“The nation’s 40-year failed experiment with mass incarceration harms each and every one of us. This analysis shows that while some communities are disproportionately impacted by this failed policy, nobody escapes the damage it causes,” Emily Widra, a senior research analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative, said in a statement. “Our report is just the beginning. We’re making this data available so others can further examine how geographic incarceration trends correlate with other problems communities face.”

(Source: The Prison Policy Initiative/Public Interest Law Center)
(Source: The Prison Policy Initiative/Public Interest Law Center)

Analysts were able to reach their conclusions using data compiled during the most recent round of legislative redistricting, where lawmakers decided to address a practice known as prison gerrymandering.

With the change, lawmakers counted most incarcerated people by their hometowns — instead of their prison cells — as they drew the new lines for 203 state House and 50 state Senate districts

(Source: Public Interest Law Center and the Prison Policy Initiative)
(Source: Public Interest Law Center and the Prison Policy Initiative)

Among the other findings:

  • “Every single county — and every state legislative district — is missing a portion of its population to incarceration in state prison.
  • “While Philadelphia County sends the most people to prison, the much smaller Venango County has the highest imprisonment rate of any county, at 452 per 100,000 residents,”
  • “There are dramatic differences in imprisonment rates within communities. For example, in Philadelphia, one of the most racially segregated cities in the nation, residents of the Nicetown neighborhood are more than fifty times as likely to be imprisoned than residents of the Center City-West neighborhood,” the report’s authors wrote.
(Source: Public Interest Law Center and the Prison Policy Initiative)
(Source: Public Interest Law Center and the Prison Policy Initiative)

The report also finds that there are far-reaching outcomes to widespread incarceration, including high rates of asthma and depression, lower standardized test scores, and reduced life expectancy, among other things.

“Mass incarceration hurts every community in Pennsylvania, but hurts some communities more than others,” Benjamin Geffen of the Public Interest Law Center, and a co-author of the report, said in a statement.

“As state and local leaders rethink our approaches to criminal justice, they should use data about who is in state prisons to target investments in jobs, housing, education, and healthcare that will strengthen families and communities,” Geffen said.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.

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