SCI Phoenix – the biggest and most expensive state prison in Pennsylvania – is slated to open in Montgomery County next month about a mile from the aged facility it’s replacing.
The $400 million facility, originally scheduled to open in 2015, is considered a major upgrade from Graterford Prison, the Depression-era jail.
But former inmates and advocates continue to be concerned the short move could lead to an uptick in violence if inmates with their own cells at Graterford suddenly have to share at Phoenix — and can’t adjust.
“It becomes a hassle, and it becomes an issue because everybody brings in a different personality, everybody brings in a different character,” said Rickey Duncan, who served more than a decade at Graterford for drug and gun offenses.
Officials with the state Department of Corrections have said more men will be doubling up in single cells at Phoenix, a 3,830-bed facility. Spokeswoman Amy Worden said, initially, that would not apply to anyone who doesn’t share a cell at Graterford, but she added housing arrangements may change after the move.
“At this time, all inmates who are currently single-celled at SCI Graterford will be initially housed in a single cell at SCI Phoenix, pending further review following the move,” said Worden in an email.
Prison officials have said doubling up cells is the national model.
That doesn’t sit well with Angus Love, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, which provides free legal services to inmates at Graterford. He’s particularly worried about the men serving life sentences, who have spent years, sometimes decades, living in their own cell without having to compromise with another inmate.
Love said that change could easily disturb the peace.
“Lifers are the most stabilizing force in the prison culture,” he said. “They try to enforce some basic rules, like don’t steal from each other and commit violent acts. So, if you upset the lifer population, you may well risk upsetting the whole prison culture.”
The 1 million-square-foot Phoenix facility will have better gym facilities, more classroom space, and exposure to natural light. The jail cells will be slightly bigger than the ones at Graterford.
The 2,588 inmates at Graterford are scheduled for transport to SCI Phoenix at the end of June, before the start of the new fiscal year.
Graterford, built in 1929, will stop housing inmates, but will not completely cease operations until the department figures out next steps.