By Andy Hoover
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, the number of people held in its 25 facilities is down nearly 2,000 from a year ago. That is approximately the number of people who can be housed in one prison.
And so the department did what any agency run by rational people would do when it has excessive and unneeded space – it announced its plan to consolidate, by closing the State Correctional Institution at Retreat in Luzerne County, which will save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in the process.
The department’s announcement had barely landed in reporters’ inboxes before the complaints from legislators from both parties and both chambers of the General Assembly began, all from Luzerne County. Their underlying argument: Closing SCI-Retreat will adversely impact the economy of the region.
Legislators go to Harrisburg to advocate for their constituents, and defending jobs that pay well and include strong benefits fits squarely in that lens. And this wasn’t the first time an announced prison closure elicited such a reaction.
State legislators from western Pennsylvania were similarly outraged when the department announced another prison closing a few years ago.
But their message couldn’t be more transparent, or appalling: Pennsylvania needs to incarcerate as many people as possible to provide jobs for other people. In the eyes of these legislators, keeping people in cages is necessary for economic sustainability.
It’s an argument that is immoral and inhumane.
The Corrections Department’s plan to close another prison is what ending mass incarceration looks like. The massive spike in Pennsylvania’s state prison population over the last 39 years is well-documented. In 1980, there were approximately 8,000 people in the commonwealth’s state correctional facilities.
Over the next 30 years, that population ballooned more than six times, reaching a high of more than 51,000 in 2009, which forced then-Gov. Ed Rendell to move several thousand prisoners to facilities out of state. Pennsylvania simply did not have room for them all.
In the decade since, the number of people who are held in state prisons has decreased by about eight percent, to today’s total population of approximately 47,000.
Closing prisons is a natural and expected outcome after a drop in the state prison population. Pennsylvania’s taxpayers should demand as much.
There are better ways to maintain and boost a region’s economy than through incarcerating human beings.
Data from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry shows that industries that are among the top employers in Luzerne County include healthcare, education, and local, state, and federal government agencies.
State legislators have a duty to work with local public officials and the private sector to create an economic climate that provides jobs that pay well with fair benefits without bolstering the prison industrial complex.
The Wolf administration and the Department of Corrections, under the leadership of Secretary John Wetzel, have made clear that keeping people out of prison is a priority.
More remains to be done, of course. That list includes reforming a probation system that is a feeder to jails and prisons, properly enforcing the Rules of Criminal Procedure so that counties stop using cash bail as punishment before trial, and addressing the commonwealth’s broken commutation process.
Nevertheless, the Correction Department’s decision to close SCI-Retreat is welcome news in an era of smart justice.
It’s time for legislators to understand that an economic plan based on incarceration has no place in a commonwealth founded on liberty.
Andy Hoover is the Director of Communications for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. He writes from Harrisburg.