Late last week, as the mayoral primary barreled toward its anticlimactic conclusion, PlanPhilly published a story about a bill that would allow the city to buy land in order to lay the groundwork for a new prison.
It initially seemed to be the tale of a sweetheart land deal, in which a company that paid $100 for the plot would walk away with nearly $7.3 million in taxpayer dollars. Of course, it was much more nuanced than it seemed. The land had been foreclosed upon after a multimillion-dollar loan went bad, and the city was paying fair market value to a company seeking to recoup its investment.
But even as that part of the story was clarified, another question gnawed at me incessantly. Why are we laying the groundwork for a new prison—a prison that could cost up to $500 million—when Philadelphia’s public schools are forecasting an $85 million deficit?
The answer seemed obvious. The prison was being given priority over the schools. And while there seemed to be a rational explanation—that the prison would be built with capital dollars that could be borrowed, while the schools needed operating dollars that had to be raised—the schools and the prisons are not separate issues. In fact, the schools and the prisons are locked in an intimate embrace.
Failing schools feed what’s come to be known as the school to prison pipeline. Poor and minority children who fail to graduate are statistically more likely to land in prison. Once they are funneled into prison cells, they fuel a system that churns out broken lives with frightening efficiency.
Even when they leave those cells, prison is seared onto their permanent records like a scarlet letter, warning employers not to hire them. Within five years, according to national statistics, three quarters of them return to prison. Then they begin the cycle anew.
This is not to say we don’t need prisons. We do. In this case, especially, a new prison is a glaring need. The House of Correction opened in 1874, was razed in 1925, and the same materials were used to reconstruct the prison on the original site. With a total of 666 cells, the prison houses medium or minimum custody inmates. However, the facility’s age is making it harder to maintain, and now it is overcrowded and frightening, crumbling and dangerous. It must be replaced at some point, and that’s what the proposed new prison is supposed to do.
But the schools must be the priority, and they can be, if we dare to innovate.
Suppose the School District of Philadelphia, rather than returning each year for the financial crisis of the day, opened its books for a forensic audit that could determine why it’s perpetually in the red?
Suppose the Mayor’s Office and City Council decided that they would come up with something more palatable than a property tax hike to fund our crumbling schools.
Suppose we accepted the reality that 75 percent of the prisoners in the House of Correction are awaiting trial for up to a year, and haven’t been found guilty of anything? Suppose we let nonviolent accused to await trial at a community-based facility?
Suppose we, in the community, decided to support education over incarceration; to instruct children rather than house prisoners; to stop the pipeline right at the source?
If we had the courage to make such common sense decisions, we wouldn’t need funding for a new prison. Instead, we’d be embarking on a new day.