Protesters crash Wolf fundraiser, demand he rethink tighter prison security

Dozens of protesters gather on a Philadelphia street corner to urge Governor Tom Wolf to change a number of new prison security measures. (Katie Meyer/WITF)

Dozens of protesters gather on a Philadelphia street corner to urge Governor Tom Wolf to change a number of new prison security measures. (Katie Meyer/WITF)

What would have been a low-key weeknight campaign fundraiser for Democratic Governor Tom Wolf Wednesday night ended up featuring a sidewalk altercation between dozens of protesters and police.

Several of the protesters made it into the fundraiser, which was held at a Philadelphia brewery. However, they were ultimately ejected from the building for causing a disturbance.

The Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration organized the rally.

Members are angry that over the last two months, the state Department of Corrections has launched a number of new security measures in response to concerns that drugs were being smuggled into prisons and causing overdose symptoms among staff. The measures include sending all mail to a processing facility in Florida and giving inmates photocopies instead of their original letters, routing all purchases of physical books through the department itself and temporarily suspending book donations and gifts.

Members of CADBI and other inmates’ rights groups say the changes were rolled out too quickly and without the necessary planning. And, they say, the policies are more restrictive than necessary.

Wolf entered and exited his fundraiser through a back door and didn’t engage with the protesters.

He’s currently in the final stretch of his reelection campaign against Republican challenger Scott Wagner.

Coalition member and former inmate Robert Saleem Holbrook said for him, this isn’t about the election, or even really about Wolf–Holbrook actually likes the governor’s criminal justice platform better than Wagner’s.

“We’re not basing our stance on Wagner,” he said. “We’re not basing our stance on catering to Wolf. We’re out here because our families are impacted by this.”

Kempis Songster, another onetime inmate who now advocates for criminal justice reform, said the group is just looking for a politician to listen to their concerns.

“You know, in this electoral narrative it seems like it’s a scenario where we’re always caught between a rock and a hard place,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Wolf said he stands by the policy changes as the best way to protect staff and inmates from drugs. The DOC recently announced overdose symptoms in prisons have dropped since instating the new rules.

The administration is planning to hear concerns about the new prison policies in a more controlled environment on Thursday when Corrections Secretary John Wetzel conducts a town hall discussion in Philadelphia.

The event is organized by the state’s Legislative Black Caucus.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.