Attacking the problem of prison overcrowding

Prison overcrowding has been one of the city’s most pernicious problems for a couple of decades now. With a new crime plan in effect that promises to crack down on violent crime and round up parole and probation violators, there’s potential for that problem to get worse.

Late yesterday, the prisons commissioner and the mayor revealed a plan to ease overcrowding and focus on recidivism. The entire announcement can be found after the jump. You can also download a .pdf of the full report with this link.

In today’s Daily News, Catherine Lucey has a story about the plan which is response to factors that have been building for a long time but also to pressure recently put on in the form of a lawsuit:

Overcrowding is a key problem in the prison system. According to the plan, the current prison population is 9,193, though the city’s six jails were built for about 6,400. (A prison study commissioned in September said the population topped 9,300 inmates.)

Just last month 11 inmates filed a class-action lawsuit against the city and the prison commissioner, complaining of “triple-celling,” crowding three people into a two-person cell.

Though generally praised by a local prison advocacy group, that group is not without its questions:

William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a prisoner advocacy group, praised the overall direction of the plan, but questioned the proposal to move some prisoners outside the city.

“We still have concerns regarding shipping prisoners out of jurisdictions where they will be further away from their families and will not have access to appropriate programs,” he said.

One of the causes of overpopulation is rooted in the continually dysfunctional relationship between the city and the state. From the report:

As of this writing over four-hundred inmates are serving state sentences of two to five or more years in PPS facilities. These inmates represent nearly 20% of the prisons sentenced population. Neither the prisons nor the City is reimbursed for costs associated with their care which is estimated at more than $11,000,000.00 annually. Removal of these inmates from PPS would result in a marked reduction in the Prisons budget, coupled with the availability of over four-hundred beds.

The report mentions that there is legislation pending in Harrisburg that would mandate that anyone serving over two years would do so in state custody. This is yet another example of the disadvantages faced by Philadelphia as the commonwealth’s largest and only “first class” city. The state continues to shirk a good deal of the responsibilities that it fulfills for other counties, especially when it comes to the law enforcement, the courts and the prisons.

Of course, the argument could be made that since these prisoners committed their crimes in Philadelphia or are Philadelphia residents, then the city should be made to foot the bill for their crimes rather than spread that cost on to the rest of the state. If that’s the case, perhaps all of the state tax money paid by Philadelphians and businesses in the city should also be kept in the city.

If Mayor Nutter can take steps to solve some of the issues between the city and the rest of the state, he will go a long way in being able to redirect funds towards investments in education, economic development, and city infrastructure while improving relations between the City of Brotherly love and its brothers and sisters in the rest of Pennsylvania.

Press release announcing prisons initiative is after the jump.


Philadelphia, May 21, 2008 – Mayor Michael A. Nutter directed the Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla to develop a plan detailing short, medium and long term management recommendations for the Philadelphia Prison System (PPS) for fiscal years 2009- 20013.

The “Philadelphia Prison System Strategic Plan FY09-FY13” was delivered to the Mayor on April 24, 2008, having been developed in collaboration with the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, Everett Gillison, Philadelphia Prison System senior staff, members of the Prison Reform Transition Committee and concerned professionals within the city’s justice and prisoner advocacy communities.

“The Philadelphia Prison System needs to be retooled to adequately face the strains of a modern city,” said Mayor Nutter. “The system has languished without the political will for change. I thank Commissioner Giorla, Deputy Mayor Gillison for their leadership in drafting this plan.”

The Prisons Plan is organized around a central, immediate challenge – all of the Philadelphia Prisons facilities are operating at or over their designed occupancy capacities. Commissioner Giorla and his team recommend focused efforts targeting three populations – 1) people with one holding case and low bail, 2) inmates who are seriously mentally ill, and 3) drug offenders in order to alleviate overcrowding. Many of the people who fall into these three categories do not need to be in jail, and a responsible government will find economical alternatives to incarceration that provide adequate supervision and services. The Plan includes recommendations for increased use of day reporting for non-violent detainees in the short term and increased use of house arrest with GPS tracking and expansion of drug treatment court in the long term to lower the prison population.

The Plan’s recommendations are divided into three additional categories to address the other major issues facing PPS – recidivism, staff recruitment and retention, and technological upgrades. Challenges in these areas are interrelated, and must be addressed carefully. Many recommendations included in the Plan rely on strong cooperative and collaborative relationships between PPS and other City agencies and departments – and Commissioner Giorla, along with Deputy Mayor Gillison will be spearheading efforts to continue to streamline operations while ensuring that Philadelphians are protected and served by the Philadelphia Prison System.


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