Examining the Underreported Department of Prisons Ballot Question

Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF). Photo: Phila.gov

Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF). Photo: Phila.gov

By Dustin Slaughter

On Tuesday, November 4th, Philadelphia voters will choose whether or not to amend the City Charter to implement a new – and semi-independent – Department of Prisons and Commissioner of Prisons into our city’s bureaucracy.

You can read the ballot question here.

What voters decide on Tuesday will have a  significant impact on the over 8,000 individuals currently incarcerated in city jails, as it would consolidate power and streamline – for better or worse – how the Philadelphia prison system operates. Difficult to determine is whether these proposed changes would have any meaningful impact on scandals, both past and present, such as those revealed by Daniel Denvir in a recent City Paper expose on prison abuse and apparent cover-ups at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.

The ballot question at issue, which passed City Council in May and was eventually approved by Mayor Michael Nutter later that month, would also make permanent the Office of Reintegration Services (RISE), a program created to assist ex-prisoners with reintegrating into society. Nutter created it with an executive order in 2013; if incorporated into the City Charter, future administrations could not scrap the program.

Here’s how Philly’s prison system is currently set up: the Board of Trustees of Philadelphia Prisons, and to a much lesser extent the Department of Human Services (the same DHS responsible for neglected and orphaned children), oversees all six city prison facilities, with the Board having a vastly greater hand in setting prison policies than the DHS. If the initiative passes, a new Department of Prisons would be created and headed by a Prisons Commissioner appointed by, and directly answerable to, the City’s Managing Director. This differs from other major appointments, such as those made for the city’s police and fire departments.

Current Managing Director Richard Negrin – a former board member of prison services company Aramark – may appoint the first Commissioner before the Nutter administration leaves.

One significant, and notably absent change from the ballot question: future Commissioners are legally permitted to appoint “exempt deputies” – meaning those who don’t have to pass a civil service exam – according to testimony from current Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla given to City Council in April.

Giorla continues:

“It would give the Commissioner the legal discretion to either reach within the department for qualified individuals, or select from outside the department. It would also, I believe, accelerate the process for appointing high-ranking deputies. It wouldn’t require the timeline that Civil Service requires.”

Another difference: the seven current Trustees – who bring a range of experience from outside prison bureaucracy – include private attorneys, a physician, and an activist, among others, would only be offering suggestions for reform; the Commissioner could then choose to implement recommendations – or not. Unclear is whether current Trustees would carry over into what is described as the “new” Board, nor is it clear who would make Board appointments; presumably, the Mayor would continue to do so.

The legislation’s sponsor, Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., sought to dispel concerns during the April hearing that this legislation is an attempt to privatize prisons. He also stated that restructuring the prison system would allow prison officials to apply for federal grant money:

“The first wave of this notion had people believing we were trying to privatize prisons, which was far from the case…This is just moving a department that was originally under the Quaker influence put under DHS, and it just, in modern prison management, just didn’t fit. Yes, we should be humanitarians. Yes, we should do all of those things, but some practical things it did not do was allow for things like federal funding. Under federal models when they give grants, it doesn’t come through a department like Human Services [DHS]. It goes directly to a prison.”

The Declaration sought clarification on a number of aspects regarding the legislation from the ballot measure’s sponsor, Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. His office has yet to respond. We will update with any comment from the Councilman’s office.

You can download and review Council testimony from April, which starts on page 11, below.

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