Why nobody should be held in Philly's House of Correction

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

But is a new jail the answer?


Nestled just above the visitor's entrance to Philadelphia's House of Correction hangs a small wooden sign, painted blue, with "Welcome" written on the front, right next to the image of a grinning snowman. "You'll see how hot it is when we get inside," one of the jail's corrections officers says as he ushers me through the lobby — full of whirling fans — and into Warden William Lawton's office for a quick chat. Lawton, a large man, is seated at the end of a long conference table, hunched over some paperwork. To his right, a large flat-screen television hangs from the wall, dormant, right next to a floor-to-ceiling tapestry of the late comedian Bernie Mac, who is shooting a thumbs-up right back at Lawton. This room, at least, has air conditioning.

"My grandson calls this the 'transformer jail!'" Lawton says. "He says, 'You're always transforming things to make them work.'"
Lawton, who has worked within the Philadelphia Prison System for 37 years, has been the House of Correction's warden for the last three. "We've converted space for classrooms, for medical facilities, all of which were not parts of the correctional mindset 200 years ago."

He tells me he's tired of repairing cracks in the ceiling, tired of sealing leaky pipes, tired of working in a jail built in 1874, then rebuilt using the same bricks in 1927.

"Our keys don't have an automated locking system," he says. He mimes unlocking a cell door, twisting one of his hands at the wrist. "They're made out of brass. We have to special-order parts for them."

And, on a steamy almost-summer day like today, he's tired of the weather: The jail, built along the same floor plan as the fortress called Eastern State Penitentiary, has no central cooling system. "Today, it's hot, but unfortunately I can't take my population out to the mall," he says, chuckling. "And the heating system is quite old, but unfortunately, winter still visits us all." He swings his hand out and points to a spot on the wall, just behind Bernie Mac. "This wall is 8 inches thick! It's a real wall," he says, implying that it'd be nearly impossible to install new vents or pipes. "There's no fire-suppression system here. If the place were to catch fire, we'd need to unlock each cell, one by one. It's hard just to provide the humane to people.

"There have been plans to replace this place for 15 years," he continues. "But it just hasn't worked out."

****

Lawton's concerns echo, almost word-for-word, those of City Councilman Bobby Henon, who has been trying — at Mayor Michael Nutter's request — to replace the House of Correction with a brand-new jail. Henon, a sturdy man with a thick helmet of iron-gray hair, was the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union's political director before winning a seat on Council in 2011. Henon's 6th Council District includes the neighborhoods of Mayfair, Frankford and Holmesburg, home of the House of Correction.

In February, Nutter's office released its annual six-year capital program plan, which conspicuously included $4.9 million to purchase land for "prison expansion potential." On April 30 Henon introduced Bill 150406 — which would let the city spend up to $7.2 million to buy a parcel of land at 7777 State Road, adjacent to the House of Correction. He chose, however, to hold the bill after the City Planning Commission voted 5-0 against the plan. (A number of Holmesburg residents also spoke out against the idea.)

Both Henon's and Nutter's camps claim now is the right time to get started, mostly because there's land available: The House of Correction, which housed 1,492 lower-security prisoners as of Sunday, is a crumbling, perennial money-suck, Henon argues. Rather than spend millions to renovate it, building a new facility on the State Road property (which, interestingly, is owned by a limited-liability company called 7777 Philadelphia Pa Loan Associates, though Henon says the company is owned by BNP Paribas bank) makes far more sense to Henon, both monetarily and from a human-rights standpoint. The House is falling apart and should not be used to hold prisoners, Henon says. (Nutter also asked for $5 million this year to repair the jail's roof.)

Critics have launched a full-scale attack on the plan, contending that building a new jail would likely cost the city between $300 million and $500 million, money City Council can never seem to find when it comes to funding Philly's impoverished School District. Henon has countered that money for a new jail would come from the city's capital budget, which comes from funds borrowed against municipal bonds, rather than its operating budget, where money for the schools is allocated. Though Henon argues that the capital budget is not funded directly by taxpayers, most of his opponents haven't bought his logic. Fellow Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. has been, perhaps, Henon's most vocal opponent on Council: "Yeah it's two different budgets, but it comes out of your same pocket," he told WURD 900 AM radio host Solomon Jones. The city's General Obligation bonds, which would fund a portion of the land purchase, are repaid from the city's general tax revenues.

Likewise, a number of prison-reform advocates believe the city should instead streamline its Department of Pretrial Services. There are currently 8,113 inmates in the Philadelphia Prison System's six facilities: Besides the 1,500 at the House of Correction (which theoretically is supposed to hold 1,250), about 2,700 men sit inside the city's largest jail, the Curran-Fromhold Correction Facility, which opened in 1995. Likewise, the 50-year-old Detention Center holds around 1,200; the Philadelphia Industrial Correction Center, opened in 1986, holds roughly 1,000; and the Riverside Correctional Facility, the city's sole female-only jail, holds 750 women. However, around 6,000 of the 8,000 people sitting in the Philadelphia Prison System are currently being held pretrial, many of them because they are unable to post bail.

"Our position on it is that the House of Correction should be closed," said civil rights lawyer David Rudovsky, when asked about what ought to happen to the jail. He insisted, however, that a new one should not be built. "If you build it, you're gonna fill it. That's how prisons work."

"The jail population can be safely lowered to a point that new beds would not be needed," he added in an e-mail.

Henon could have brought the land purchase to a vote during Council's final four legislative sessions in May and June but he held on to the bill after protesters, many of them members of the prison-reform advocacy group Decarcerate PA, flooded some of the meetings. On June 17, he sent it back to the Public Property Committee, saying he'd use the Council recess to speak to more constituents before bringing the bill to vote again in the fall.

I sat down with Henon in his office on City Hall's fourth floor on June 29 to parse out what his plans were going forward. "I agree that we need to cut down on the pretrial process, and the incarceration rates," he said. "Decreasing the population should be addressed. But if you decrease the population from its current number to 6,000, there still will be a need for a House of Correction." He went on, stressing, as he has on numerous occasions, that his plan does not "add" a prison to the system: "Once the new one is built, the old one will be shut down." He mentioned to me, however, that the proposed new jail would have 2,500 beds, a 1,000-bed increase over the existing House of Correction. Henon says the bed increase won't lead to a population increase. He says the new beds should just allow men throughout the system who are being held in triple cells to move to two-man cells in the new facility.

But an increase in beds does not necessarily lead to a decrease in overcrowding. The Department of Justice's Bureau of Prisons increased overall capacity of federal prisons in this country by 8,300 beds from 2006 to 2011, only to see its levels of crowding increase as well, due to an increase in arrests, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. According to a Pew Charitable Trusts report, Philly's jail population peaked at 9,787 inmates in 2009, before falling to around 7,700 in 2011.

The population is now about 400 larger, mainly for two reasons. Mayor Nutter in 2012 asked the city to begin issuing higher bails to those accused of gun crimes, effectively punishing inmates before they've been convicted. The second reason has to do with a 2009 Inquirer series about men and women skipping bail in Philadelphia: In response, the city created a Bench Warrant Court in 2012 to crack down on bail fugitives. Earlier this year, the city received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to look into ways to decrease its jail population.

Through everything, one point remains undeniable: Absolutely no one should be sitting inside the House of Correction.

****

Back out in the main lobby, visitors enter and exit, and guards shout to be heard over the sound of the fans. The air is thick, soupy and stale-smelling. Capt. Joe Browne, one of the jail's chief corrections officers — tall, with gray hair, a long face and the wide stance of a man prepared to break up a brawl — leads us out of the lobby. We go through a small courtyard wrapped in barbed wire, through a metal detector and come up to a thick metal gate. On the other side is a hallway with doors to the jail's schoolhouse, medical center and visitation room. Inmates, clad in blue, line up along the right side of the central hallway as they wait to enter the visitation room. Most stare at the ground.

A guard jams a thick, brass key into the door and swings it open with two hands. The visitation room seems standard, if a bit low-budget: Prisoners sit in plastic chairs, arranged in rows and their visitors sit facing them, about 2 feet away, just far enough to make it difficult to touch.

"They're allowed to hug and kiss each other good-bye," Shawn Hawes, a prison spokesperson, tells me. An air-conditioning unit the size of a vending machine drones on, drowning out what is being said.

****

The original House of Correction was built — ironic as this may now sound — to alleviate overcrowding. In response to a prison system absolutely swamped with inmates, the city in 1861 convened a Joint Committee on the Erection of a House of Corrections, which issued a report that is still available at the Philadelphia Free Library's Central Branch.

James J. Barclay, then the president of the city's Board of Managers, wrote that in 1859, the city's prisons were so overstuffed with victims of "intemperance" that more than 7,000 people were discharged for "want of room" in that year alone. Sadder still, the system was, even in the 19th century, clogged with inmates being held pretrial: At Moyamensing Prison, which stood at 1400 S. 10th St. from 1835 to 1963, men slept three to five to a cell, and there were "hardly 50 cells to spare for the number of untried criminals alone."

So, to hopefully relieve some of the system's congestion, the city got to work on the original House of Correction, which opened in 1874. "All through the 19th century, there was this really strong belief that isolation was good," says Sean Kelley, a prison historian and director of interpretation and public programming at Eastern State Penitentiary. "The model for the original House of Correction would have undoubtedly been solitary confinement."

The House's board of directors kept detailed records through the jail's first few years of operation, noting that the facility became overcrowded almost immediately. A year after opening, there were more than 1,500 inmates inside, and board members had already begun petitioning the city to buy more land. "I cannot too strongly recommend the purchase of additional property," one remarked, after noting that there was not enough farmland surrounding the prison to properly feed the inmates. By 1876, the overcrowding had become worrisome: The facility processed 8,074 inmates, and, at any point in the year, typically held more than 2,000.

The building was knocked down in 1925 and rebuilt, opening again two years later. "It's hard to emphasize enough how much it looks like Eastern State," Kelley says. "It looks shockingly similar. It's medieval." He says, however, that 100-year-old prisons are common across the country. "Nineteen twenty-six is, sad to say, not that old of a prison in the scheme of things."

Kelley adds, "These things are really built to take abuse. They're built to withstand people who want to intentionally harm them. What they build might be around for the next hundred years."

****

With the door closed, the prison Learning Lab feels like an elementary school classroom. There's a large teacher's desk in the center of the room, and the walls, painted a light blue, are covered in bright-colored posters espousing the joys of English and arithmetic. Mid-2000s-era PCs line the back wall. These, I'm told, are used to administer G.E.D. training. "Most of our inmates are testing around the fifth-grade reading level," says Hawes, the prison spokesperson.

Wayne Jacobs, a former inmate who now heads X-Offenders for Community Empowerment, a group that helps parolees find employment after leaving prison, told me he believes the city ought to be relying more on G.E.D. training programs to keep those awaiting trial out of the permanent prison population.

"The city should begin to look at those 1,500 prisoners to see how many are willing to go to drug treatment, mental-health treatment, G.E.D. job readiness while they're waiting to go to court," Jacobs says. "They can easily send those folks to those particular programs. They should increase their pretrial-services budget, so they can be able to place people on house arrest in those programs. This way, we will be able to empty out the House of Correction."

Angus Love, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, which provides legal services to those in prisons, jails and state hospitals, agrees. He believes the city can reduce its population to far fewer than the 6,000 Henon talked about.

"New York City reduced its population," Love says.

That city's prison population dropped from 22,000 in 1991 to 13,200 in 2009, largely because the city reduced the number of people it arrested on drug charges, according to a report compiled by the Vera Insitute of Justice, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the nonprofit JFA Institute.

By city population alone, Philadelphia ought to have a quarter of New York's jail population, Love said, "but we over-incarcerate. If we invest in alternatives to incarceration, like mental-health treatment, we can bring the population down to three to four thousand, and they could fit inside Curran-Fromhold."

A few feet down the hall, through an open door, sits the jail's mental-health screening ward. It is, simply put, a paltry excuse for an intake center. There are three small desks for the social workers that assess prisoners, and only one desk sits behind a small door that can be shut to preserve privacy. Today, because the door is open, I peer in and an inmate waves at me and shouts, "Hello!" as if we're neighbors running into one another at the bank.

A social worker, who asked not to be named, points to a chair next to her desk. "If I'm talking with a patient, he sits right here, and everyone can hear him," she says.

I ask if she'd prefer to work in a new facility. "Ooh," she says, pausing for a moment. "Actually, no. I believe we need to invest more in schools than in a jail. But I think if we focused more on childhood intervention, we'd keep a lot of people out of this system."

****

The jail's central vestibule sits at the end of the hallway. Standing inside, one gets the sensation of being down in a large pit; the room is semicircular, the bricks are the color of dirt and gray sunlight streams through a skylight vaulted two stories above the ground. Here, 12 hallways arranged like spokes on a wheel meet, each blocked off with an iron gate.

We enter one hallway with cells holding 164 prisoners. There's a ruddy shower room at the beginning of the hall, across from a pay-phone bank that appears to have been cleaned even less often than the showers. Exposed copper pipes snake up and around the walls. As we walk, one of the pipes emits a hiss, and water drips down and collects in a puddle on the floor. The entire floor, for that matter, has a film to it.

We pass cell after cell. The doors are neither the sliding-style seen in cartoons, nor the thick, gray kind used in most maximum-security prisons. They are, instead, short, hobbit-hole-looking wire grates that may very well have been hand-assembled. There's a tiny porthole in each. Some men stick their faces through them to stare at us, while others lay on their bunks, some shirtless to combat the heat, some with towels over their faces.

Browne opens a cell and orders two men out so we can enter. "Relax, they're not here to search your stuff," he tells them. About the size of a college-dorm room, the space houses three men. The walls are stark white, and a copy of the Daily News sits on the bed to the left. To the right, there are two bunk beds, each no bigger than the average human body. Wawa milk cartons sit on the windowsill. Above the sink, in one of the corners, the ceiling has cracked and is beginning to cave in.

Wire mesh covers the window, and it's impossible to see anything outside, only whether it's day or night. The air feels heavy and damp, and it's difficult to breathe.

On the way out, Browne stops to chat with a group of inmates waiting to head to visitation. Most keep their eyes fixed on the ground.
"Do you guys have any opinions about the House of Correction?" he asks them.

No answer.

"C'mon, guys! I'm serious."

"It sucks," one inmate says.

"How's the food?" Browne asks.

"Shitty," an older inmate leaning against a gate says, without looking up.

"See?" Browne asks, turning to me. "No coercion at all."

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