UPDATE: Victory...for now. Stay tuned.
You've probably never heard of Kalief Browder, unless you spend a lot of time on social media or read The New Yorker (and I recommend doing one of those things). Browder was just 16 when he was arrested on New York's mean streets, based on minimal evidence, for a robbery he says he didn't commit.
What happened next was a saga that even Franz Kafka would have had a hard time putting down on paper, as the teen spent three hellish years in the city's notorious Riker's Island, where -- video evidence confirmed -- he was violently abused by both guards and other inmates. Finally, with no trial and no good explanation, he was simply released. But freedom wasn't more powerful than the deep, jail-bred depression that the youth simply could not expunge. This weekend, the demons won out. Browder hanged himself in his family's home in the Bronx. He was just 22.
The fact that Browder was able to tell his story to The New Yorker made him more than a number, but his tragic story is a reminder that the numbers -- of people behind bars in America, with so many of them convicted of no crime but simply awaiting trial and unable to afford bail -- are too damn high. Just today, the New York Times reported that America's inequitable bail system "routinely punishes poor defendants before they get their day in court, often keeping them incarcerated for longer than if they had been convicted right away." Even with the publicity over the Browder case, it's reported that New York's Rikers still has more than 400 prisoners who've been held for over two years without a trial.
Philadelphia's prison system is jammed with more than 8,600 inmates -- more than the city's prison population of a decade ago, despite promises from Mayor Nutter and other official to reduce incarceration. As many as 75 percent are awaiting trial -- many behind bars because they are simply too poor to make bail. We should pray that one of this multitude is not the next Kalief Browder.
Which brings us to a plot of land on the Delaware River in the Holmesburg section of the city, in the heart of Philadelphia's prison belt.
Tomorrow, Philadelphia City Council is slated to vote on whether to spend up to $7.2 million to buy this property -- as part of a not-fully-formed plan to replace the aging 19th Century house of horrors known as the House of Correction with new modern prison cells. Put aside for the moment the unanswered questions about the recent ownership history of the land, the fact that some of the property seems to be underwater or legitimate questions about whether a prison is the best land use for prime real estate on the water. This is just a terrible plan on the merits -- one of the worst, unnecessarily rushed ideas to come down the civic pike in Philadelphia in a while...which is saying something.
But the vote is also a golden opportunity, a chance for the wiser among Philadelphia's political leaders to finally stand up to the crisis of mass incarceration and yell, STOP!
To be clear, killing the land deal and going back to the drawing board won't magically reverse years of inflated prison counts from ill-considered bail policies, the war on drugs, "broken windows" policing and unduly harsh sentencing. But the symbolism of finally moving in the right direction, for a change, would be powerful, indeed.
It's a bit like what the Keystone XL pipeline means to the debate over fossil fuels. In that case, killing a dangerous and ill-advised pipeline carrying dirty tar sands oil from Canada across the American heartland won't end our national addiction to fossil fuel, but it would show that the U.S. is finally serious about climate change. Likewise, tomorrow can be the moment where Philadelphia reverses the flow of the schools-to-prison pipeline, for good.
The presumptive next mayor, Jim Kenney, said during the primary season that he opposes a new prison in Holmesburg. That's a start, but it's only the first baby step. It's imperative that the city overhaul its repressive, outdated bail system and speed up alternatives to incarceration (and $150,000 from the MacArthur Foundation for a study will help). Once there's a real plan to reduce the number of Philadelphians behind bars unnecessarily -- but only then -- will it be time to right-size and replace the decrepit House of Corrections with a modern, but smaller, facility. Emphasis on the smaller.