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$400M prison a big upgrade, but no easy sell for Graterford corrections officers, inmates

Two years behind schedule, Phoenix finally is due to open in the summer of 2018. Inmates and those who guard them have something in common: apprehension about the move from their old, familiar prison to the new, more technologically advanced prison a thousand feet away.

Inmates in a block at SCI Graterford Thursday September 7, 2017.
Inmates in a block at SCI Graterford Thursday September 7, 2017.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / File Photograph

One looks as if it wandered out of an aging factory town, the other like an warehouse.

Stony, old Graterford state prison, one of the nation's largest with an inmate population bigger than most Pennsylvania municipalities, and its $400 million replacement, the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix, stand side-by-side on a three-square-mile plot an hour northwest of Philadelphia.

That Phoenix — the state's biggest taxpayer-backed project since the Philadelphia Convention Center — will be a dramatic upgrade over Graterford, built in 1929, was evident during tours this month of both facilities.

Its sand-colored blocks will have remote-controlled zone heating and cooling; no more of Graterford's notoriously sweaty summers when, as a corrections officer said, "you peel your clothing off at the end of the day." It will have electronic locks, instead of Graterford's hand-sized keys, two gyms instead of one, and dozens of classrooms instead of a few.

It also will be less expensive to operate, according to the state Department of Corrections. It cost $123 a day, the state says, to house an inmate at Graterford in 2016 — up from $114 the year before. Newer prisons cost as little as $90 — that could be about a $48 million difference annually — and John Wetzel, Pennsylvania secretary of corrections,  hopes the cost at Phoenix will be less.

Back when the prison was proposed a decade ago, Pennsylvania's prisoner count was approaching 50,000 and expected to continue rising, but in recent years the inmate population has dropped, and the state has been closing older prisons. The state spends about $2 billion a year to operate 25 prisons with more than 47,000 inmates.

Two years behind schedule, Phoenix finally is due to open in the summer of 2018. After a decade of hearing of an impending move and years of watching construction at the site next to them, inmates and those who guard them have something in common: apprehension about the move from their old, familiar prison to the new, more technologically advanced prison a thousand feet away.

Small groups of staffers have walked through the new prison, according to state officials, but many of the more than 700 members of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association union working at the maximum-security Graterford have not, said union president Jason Bloom.

"Nobody really knows what to expect," he said. "It's just the apprehension of not knowing."

In a profession that relies on knowing one's surroundings inside and out, the disruption to routine outweighs excitement over "going from a '72 Pinto to getting a new Cadillac," he said. The corrections officers also are concerned about unresolved issues over staffing levels.

And most of the men living at the prison also would rather stay at Graterford, said John Pace, who served 31 years of a life sentence he received as a juvenile, and now works with men inside and others who have left.

"They don't know what the new prison is going to be like," he said, noting that new prison designs can disrupt programs for prisoners, which are conducted by staff, prisoner groups, and many outside visiting organizations. "The structure they've been accustomed to will no longer exist."

In addition, prison reform advocates and officials of the 15,000-resident host community, Skippack Township, Montgomery County, worry about the fate of the Graterford complex, with its robust supply of lead and asbestos probably impractical for any other use save for additional prison space, about the last thing the town would want.

It's what the state did at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which continued to operate for a generation after its replacement, Graterford, first opened, and at SCI Pittsburgh, which the state closed but reopened for a few years.

Michael Wenerowicz, a former Graterford superintendent who is now deputy secretary of corrections for the state's eastern region, said that won't happen with Graterford. He said limits on fuel and sewage access once Phoenix gets running make it "impossible for me to put this facility back on line."

At Phoenix, double-celling will be more common than it was at Graterford, a decadeslong state policy and "a more responsible use of our resources," says William Nicklow, director of the Department of Corrections' Office of Population Management and Sentence Computation. At Phoenix, fewer cells will be able to accommodate more prisoners.

Thus, inmates now alone in their cells — a result of good behavior and available space — worry they will be getting cellmates. "The lifers, of which there are many — they always enjoyed the privilege of having a single cell. That is going to end," says Angus Love, who as executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project has sued a string of Pennsylvania prison officials to demand basic medical and living-space improvements.

Phoenix will be broken into cellblock groups of up to 280 inmates patrolled by a pair of officers on each shift, instead of Graterford's long halls housing up to 700 monitored by several corrections officers. That arrangement should make it easier to control the complex: Smaller is more manageable, and "if it becomes more manageable, it is safer," Wenerowicz said.

Familiar patterns will change. "At Graterford, everything is inside. At [Phoenix], we're going to be outside a lot," says Lt. Julian Taylor, a 12-year veteran on a recent shift on Graterford's death row.

Phoenix also will have fewer beds, a maximum of 4,055, instead of the 4,718 beds at Graterford, and it will have a death row for male inmates and a transitional housing unit in a separate building for up to 192 female inmates.

For all the updates and the obvious changes, tours of Phoenix with Wetzel, and of Graterford with Wenerowicz, show that the fundamental realities of prison life won't change.

The cells will be about the same size as Graterford's. The metal-shelf  bunk-over-bunk cells, the officers' stations, cell checks, the showers with hip-level doors, the supervised group walks to work areas, food halls, classrooms, and exercise yards, the constant surveillance, should all seem familiar.

Superintendent Cynthia Link, who has run Graterford since 2015 and will be Phoenix's first warden, hopes to move the last Graterford inmates to the new complex by July.

Graterford, which sprouted into a rural labor camp in the 1920s, was a considerable improvement over the riot- and escape-prone Eastern State Penitentiary.

Ninety-four years after inmate crews began turning fields at Graterford into a rural labor camp for inmates at Philadelphia's  Eastern State Penitentiary and 10 years after then-Gov. Ed Rendell's proposal to replace Graterford set off a years-long legal fight over how to bid the job, corrections staff are starting to move into support buildings at Phoenix. But as of last week, the housing units still hadn't passed Labor Department inspections, and state General Services officials hadn't resolved $25 million in payments disputed by general contractor Walsh/Heery Joint Venture.

David Downey, who had spent a month at Graterford a decade ago while awaiting a transfer, is one who heartily endorses the move.

"It was like the Wild West," he recalled. "Graterford is dirty, it's dangerous."

By the Numbers

10 years ago: Gov. Ed Rendell proposed a replacement for Graterford

2015: year Phoenix was scheduled to open

1929: year Graterford was built

4,055: beds at SCI Phoenix

4,718: beds at SCI Graterford

47,000+: inmates in Pennsylvania state prisons

$45,000: cost per year per inmate at Graterford

$2 billion: cost per year for the state to run its prisons