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Councilman withdraws prison land purchase bill

Philadelphia City Councilman Bobby Henon withdrew a controversial bill last week that would allow the city to spend more than $7 million to buy waterfront property for the possible construction of a new prison.

In a letter to Mayor Michael Nutter dated June 17, Henon wrote that he was going to refer Bill №150406 back to Council’s Committee on Public Property, where it will be subject to new public hearings in the fall following Council’s summer recess. The bill had been scheduled for a full Council vote during the legislative body’s June 18 meeting, its last until September.

That final vote had been delayed three times in recent weeks as opponents of the proposal lobbied within Council chambers, at community meetings and via social media to block the bill’s passage. If passed, the bill would have authorized the city’s Commissioner of Public Property to negotiate the purchase of 7777-R State Road for as much as $7.27 million. The 58-acre tract is a former industrial site that was rezoned as residential land in 2005.

Opponents criticized the plan on various fronts. Many argued that the city should spend more money on schools instead of a prison. They want to see a reduction in the prison population. Others argued that reserving the land for a new prison would be a waste of scarce waterfront property, preferring a more community- or business-friendly use.

Henon, who introduced the bill at the request of the Nutter administration, has maintained that the plan is an attempt to develop a viable solution for a pressing problem — the inadequacy of the city’s decaying and overcrowded House of Correction, an 88-year-old prison that houses more than 1,500 inmates, about 300 more than it was designed to hold.

The State Road site abuts existing prison property and would facilitate efficient operation of prison services. Once built, the city could evacuate and close the House of Correction.

In his letter, Henon wrote: “I introduced this bill because I believe that we have a responsibility to replace the existing House of Correction, as there are a number of issues with the current structure. The rising costs of running the crumbling, severely outdated facility are issues of operational and financial efficiency. Due to overcrowding, structural decay and poor living conditions, the prison has been the subject of several Federal and State civil rights lawsuits, including one currently set to go to trial next year.”

Further, Henon responded to the arguments raised by opponents of the proposal: “While I believe that most of the members of City Council agree that we need to take action to replace the House of Correction, uninformed and politically motivated critics have used this legislation to conflate, rewrite, distort, distract and lie about the intent of this legislation. A replacement for this outdated and dangerous facility will not siphon money away from our cash-strapped schools; this is not a choice between school desks and prison beds. It is easy to play on public fears and to spread misinformation to fuel a culture of inaction. It is much more difficult to make tough decisions, particularly when those decisions most directly affect the least powerful among us.”

Henon said he will call for public hearings in the fall and invite stakeholders to contact his office to participate. He will also hold “telephone town hall” meetings and attend community meetings to discuss the options.

The councilman will also call for the creation of a Philadelphia Prison and Incarceration Reform Working Group, which he and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell would co-chair, and which would include participation by the city administration, the court system, the prison system, criminal justice advocates, the sheriff’s office, the Philadelphia Bar Association, public defenders, the District Attorney’s Office, correctional officers, civil rights advocates and citizens. ••

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