The Movement, July-September ‘09

by Judith Trustone

While most other states are cutting back on prison costs by releasing non-violent offenders into alternatives like ankle monitoring, the PA Department of Corrections not only plans to build four more prisons at a cost of $400 million, it also plans to send 400 prisoners to MN, TX and maybe MI due to overcrowding. It’s recognized by everyone that the ONE thing that keeps prisoners from re-offending is close contact with families. Does this make fiscal sense when years ago they spent millions building five new cell blocks at Graterford Prison and for years they’ve never used three of them for reasons that are unclear. Did the plumbing ever work?  These cell blocks now finally house 1500 prisoners. The other way the state could reduce its 10% corrections budget increase is to change the law about life-sentenced prisoners. In most other states, a life sentenced prisoner can be CONSIDERED for parole after a certain long period of incarceration. In PA, there’s no way out for a rehabilitated lifer except through recommendation to the governor from the Board of Pardons which has only recommended three people in the past thirteen years. Attorney General, Tom Corbett, has vowed never to vote to release anyone who’s taken a life, which means the Board cannot fulfill its constitutional mandate by never recommending anyone for commutation due to the new law requiring a unanimous vote by all five members rather than a majority consensus the way it was prior to 1997. There are 4600 lifers in PA, more than any other state, at a cost to taxpayers of from $65,000-$100,000 a year. We’re paying about $38 million a year to keep old folks in prison, those whose crimes were committed during their high testosterone years, and those who rarely commit new crimes once released. Legislators have considered changing the law to read consideration for commutation for those who’ve served at least 25 years or are over 50 years of age, but it wouldn’t kick in for 25 years for a crime not yet committed, bringing no relief to deserving lifers or taxpayers. Are PA prisoners worse than those in other states?

The $438 million the state could save by using alternatives to incarceration, by not building new prisons and by changing the law to consider permanent parole for some of the 4600 lifers could fund a lot of libraries, arts groups, health care and pre-schools.

Judith Trustone directs Sagewriters and the Global Kindness Revolution and is the author of Celling America’s Soul: torture & transformation in our prisons and why we should care

Box 215  Swarthmore, PA 19081

Be Sociable, Share!