With House of Correction vacant, city's prison population reduces by 36 percent

City met milestone goal a year earlier than anticipated

Cherri Gregg
June 07, 2018 - 7:43 am
House of Correction in Philadelphia

Cherri Gregg-KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The City of Philadelphia has made some progress with its efforts to reduce its prison population.  

One major milestone is depopulating one of the city's oldest prison — but that's just one of two major goals reached in record time.

Nearly a century old, the House of Correction has many names — the "creek" or the "dungeon" — but now, it can just be called "empty."

"From paint chipping off the wall to ceilings caving in, cold water 24/7," described Germel McClure, who spent a month living in the crumbling building before the Philly Community Bail Fund posted $5,000 of his $50,000 bail to get him out.

"You used to have to worry about human beings," he said, "but in there — now you have to worry about the roof caving in."

McClure, a musician, is working to fight his case. He has not been convicted of a crime. 

A coalition of activists spent months pressuring the city to shutter the 91-year-old facility. In April, Mayor Jim Kenney promised to close HOC permanently by 2020. It took less than two months to move all the inmates out.

RELATED: Philadelphia empties House of Correction, another step toward closure

"We recognized that it was no longer an appropriate correctional setting for inmates or for correctional officers to work in," noted Julie Wertheimer, director of criminal justice for the City of Philadelphia. But she said emptying the "creek" was just one milestone.

The other is prison population reduction. In 2016, Philadelphia received a $3.5 million MacAuthur Foundation grant to reduce its prison population 34 percent by 2019. 

They met that goal last month. The current prison population is 5,180, which represents a 36 percent reduction. And to top it off, they got it done a year early.

"We believe and the science has shown us that you don't need to incarcerate everyone to keep them safer," said Wertheimer, noting it took the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, the Defender Association, the courts, City Council, the Department of Prisons and the community all working together with the city to get it done.  

She said public safety is not being impacted because the collective group worked to create diversionary programs to put individuals into appropriate services pre-trial.

"For folks who are suffering from behavioral health issues or substance use disorders, what they need is treatment not incarceration," she added.

Plus, Wertheimer said there will be major financial savings. The 2018 fiscal year is expected to save $11 million, and a $16 million saving each year after that.  

As the prison population in Philadelphia jails continues to fall, the savings should increase. The ultimate goal is to reinvest those funds into community programs.

"I am glad to know that there are some brothers and sisters that are home right now," said McClure, who applauded the closing of HOC as well as the new prison numbers. "Prison is not the answer."

But activists believe there is more work to be done.

"Now, our focus is tearing down the House of Correction," said J. Jondhi Harrell, executive director of The Center for Returning Citizens. "We don't ever want the city to come back and say, 'We need space,' and use the facility again."

Harrell believes tearing down HOC would be a sign from the city that it is serious about ending mass incarceration once and for all.