Amid shrinking prison population, Philly to close oldest jail by 2020

The Philadelphia House of Correction – Maria Young/Philadelphia Weekly

The Philadelphia House of Correction – Maria Young/Philadelphia Weekly

Just three years ago, Philadelphia held the ignominious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate among large American cities.

On Wednesday, following a years-long decarceration effort, city officials announced plans to shutter the oldest and most dilapidated of the city’s six jails within the next two years.

The proposed closure of the 91-year-old House of Correction, informally known as “The Creek,” comes amid a 32 percent decrease in Philadelphia’s prison population over the last three years – a concerted effort supported by a $3.5 million MacArthur Foundation grant awarded to the city in 2016.

In June 2015, the city housed nearly 8,200 adult inmates.

“Today,” Mayor Jim Kenney said at Wednesday’s unpublicized City Hall press conference, “our jail population is the lowest it has been in 20 years at just under 5,500 [inmates].”

With 199 inmates remaining at the House of Correction, which has 666 cells, Blanche Carney, the city’s prison commissioner, said the depopulation process could move faster than anticipated, but emphasized the city cannot close the building until the systemwide population falls and stays below 4,800 inmates. The city’s remaining jails could safely house that number of inmates without the House of Correction, Carney noted.

District Attorney Larry Krasner is doing his part to expedite the process by hewing to his campaign promise to further thin the once-overcrowded prisons via new sentencing guidelines. Since ending cash bail recommendations for a slew of non-violent offenses last month, Krasner said, the county’s depopulation process has accelerated from six fewer inmates per day to 12. That figure comes from his office's internal analysis of inmate totals 50 days before and after the DA's bail reforms went into effect. 

But the crumbling House of Correction building will remain standing after the inmates are gone, despite calls to raze it entirely.

“HOC – once the last person inside is released – can never reopen and must be demolished,” the No215Jail coalition said in a statement.

Carney said the city will continue to maintain the 91-year-old facility due to its location at the heart of the Northeast Philadelphia prison campus, centered along State Road.

“We’ll hopefully not have a need to use it again, but it would be used for flex space in the event that the population increased,” Carney said, adding that such a spike is unexpected at the time.

Wednesday’s announcement was a big step, but decarceration advocates at No215Jail are still seeking additional commitments from the city, such as limiting the expansion expanding electronic monitoring and investing money saved by depopulation efforts back into communities. A recent Inquirer investigation found that the Philadelphia Department of Prisons billed the city $26 million in overtime last year – despite the historic drop in inmate population.

“We need our city to reinvest resources into our communities who have been torn apart by mass incarceration for too long,” the group said. “Instead of prisons, we need to invest in what we know keeps us safe and free: non-punitive, community-based holistic supportive services.”

Officials noted that demolition of the old jail would cost the city millions of dollars; they remain in discussion about how to best repurpose the building for rehabilitative purposes. Details are scarce at the moment.

Critics have long decried the conditions at the House of Correction, which still uses key locks, and has neither air conditioning nor a sprinkler system. 

Nearly three years ago, Councilman Bobby Henon proposed to spend millions of city dollars on acquiring waterfront land and building a new jail to replace the House of Corrections. Those plans were ultimately tabled – for the best, Henon noted Wednesday.

“Sometimes, initially, like myself, you see things a little different,” Henon said. “In the end, the inhumane conditions are undeniable and the bottom line is there shouldn’t be a human being at the House of Corrections.”