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Can the rural prison economy survive the era of decarceration?

Institutions have been sited in such rural reaches through a combination of politics and necessity, delivering desperately needed, stable jobs to struggling communities — but also, over time, producing a distinct mismatch between the locations of state prison beds and the hometowns of those destined to sleep in them.

In Smithfield, Pa., front porches look out over the barbed wire of SCI Huntingdon.
In Smithfield, Pa., front porches look out over the barbed wire of SCI Huntingdon. Read moreSamantha Melamed/STAFF

It was still dark, not yet 5 a.m., when Cynthia Mason climbed onto the coach bus outside 30th Street Station. It was so early she'd decided it was better not to go to bed at all; she couldn't risk oversleeping, not when she finally had the chance to see her son.

"I really wanted to hug him," she said. "I knew he needed a hug."

The bus, run by the nonprofit Pennsylvania Prison Society, takes families from Philadelphia to visit loved ones at the State Correctional Institutions at Smithfield and Huntingdon, two neighboring prisons in what was once central Pennsylvania coal country that together house 3,604 inmates, including 1,126 Philadelphians.

Today, more than eight in 10 Philadelphia inmates are confined in prisons more than 100 miles away. Half are at institutions, like Huntingdon, that are 200 miles or farther. The bus ride to Albion — the farthest prison, home to 439 Philadelphians — is an 800-mile round-trip that leaves 30th Street at 1 a.m. and does not return until nearly 24 hours later.

Institutions have been sited in such rural reaches through a combination of politics and necessity, delivering desperately needed, stable jobs to struggling communities — but also, over time, producing a distinct mismatch between the locations of state prison beds and the hometowns of those destined to sleep in them. The result is a fraught connection between Philadelphia and these remote Pennsylvania towns, with stark cultural and racial differences.

But last year, when news broke that the inmate census had fallen enough to close one facility, panic struck politicians and county officials, who began contemplating what the rural prison economy might look like in an era of decarceration.

Justice Reinvestment 2, a package of bills that passed out of the state Senate but is awaiting consideration by the House, aims to save $48 million by shedding 696 inmates over five years. Court commitments have declined, reflecting falling crime rates and increased use of diversionary programs. Then there's the still-unclear impact of new policies advanced by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who's ordered staff to seek lesser sentences across a range of crimes.

>>READ MORE: How Stewart Greenleaf got woke, and what his retirement means for smart-on-crime reforms

In the face of all that, State Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill-Berks) introduced a bill, which passed the Senate in March but is awaiting consideration in the House, to delay any closures for a year, allowing time for public input. Schuylkill County is home to two prisons, including SCI Frackville, which was considered for closure last year.

"I received over 5,000 letters and emails in support of the prison staying open," he said. "Those are the kind of numbers that tend to get my attention."

He supports reducing the prison population, he said. But he also keeps in mind that the Department of Corrections is the state's 15th-largest employer. "There needs to be consideration of what's going to happen to the community. After all, communities that now host prisons volunteered to do so when other communities didn't want them."

A number of studies of rural counties with prisons conducted in other states have suggested that local officials frequently overestimate the positive economic impact, noting that prisons don't necessarily employ county residents or attract related businesses.

Still, it's hard to reconcile those studies with the experience in a place like Huntingdon County,  a region once powered by the Broad Top bituminous coal fields, but where state government is now the largest employer and criminal justice the top-ranking industry. State prisons there employ 1,126 people with a payroll totaling $5.1 million biweekly. That's one job for every 40 county residents.

Bob Reitman, executive director of Huntingdon County Business and Industry, said that as the county struggles to retain young residents, especially new college graduates, the prisons promise jobs worth staying for. They also helped the county weather the recession, even as manufacturing plants closed.

"It's a stabilizing force," he said. "And the pay for a prison guard is a fair amount higher than the county average."

In 2016, the average income was $22,217 per capita. Correctional officers start at $33,090, plus benefits — or far more with overtime.

Last year, the Northeastern Pennsylvania Alliance analyzed the impact of closing any one of three prisons in that corner of the state. It found that if one were to close, not only would 400 or more prison employees be out of work, but more than 100 other jobs, like those at restaurants frequented by staff and visitors, would disappear, sapping tens of millions of dollars from the regional economy.

And that would be just the start, said Brian Hansbury, vice president of the Schuylkill Economic Development Corp.

As he studied the potential impact of closing SCI Frackville, he grew alarmed. The sewer authority would lose $348,000 annually, nearly a quarter of its revenue. The water authority would lose $283,000. And Wheelabrator, a cogeneration plant powered by waste coal from long-defunct anthracite mines, would lose a $700,000 contract to provide steam to heat the prison.

To make up the difference, he said, "it would have been on the shoulders of the ratepayers, the citizens."

‘It’s another world’

After 8 a.m., the bus passengers staggered, stiff-legged, into a Burger King for a bathroom break and breakfast. Most of the riders from Philadelphia were African American — while everyone else in the fast-food restaurant, mostly old folks socializing over breakfast, was white. Their eyes were trained on the new arrivals.

They are daughters and sons, mothers and cousins, wives and girlfriends, all of them bearing the burden of incarceration alongside their loved ones.

>>READ MORE: Fathers. Sons. Cellmates. Generations of Philadelphia families incarcerated together

"I never wanted to know this prison system, how to put money on books," said Mason, 63. "Nobody in my family went to jail. I thought I could keep it from happening."

Over the last 10 years, she's visited her son in four prisons — each with slightly different and entirely unbendable rules. And those are just the ones she could find a way to get to. There are numerous private van services in addition to the Prison Society buses, but many did not return her calls. One took her money but never showed.

The dress codes, in particular, have plagued her: Bras are required, but underwires forbidden. She's found herself dissecting her own bra with a staple remover, shredding a garment that had cost $30 or $40.

Bret Bucklen, director of the DOC's Bureau of Planning, Research and Statistics, is studying how these visits affect recidivism. Initial results show a significant reduction — as much as 10 percent.

But the algorithm used to assign inmates to the state's 26 prisons considers dozens of factors, like security level and special needs, in addition to proximity to home.

Even if the top priority were to place all inmates close to home, it would be an impossibility. Although 40 percent of inmates are from Philadelphia and its four suburban counties, only 11 percent of beds are within an hour's drive of Center City.

So, the riders make this 19-hour journey, past farmland dotted with grazing cows, the Susquehanna River rapids coursing around an eccentric replica Statue of Liberty, the monotony of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Passengers nap or play on their phones. One woman spends hours perfecting her makeup.

>>READ MORE: Pennsylvania prison growth leads to a booming cottage industry

They save up for this day — though, for someone like Marie Roberts, the $42 bus ticket is a major expense. Still, Roberts, 69, who is on a fixed income, said it's a priority to take her granddaughter to see her father. There are trade-offs, though. She had to skip the January bus, tapped out from Christmas. She might not be able to afford to come in July either, with three grandkids' birthdays.

"If it was closer, I'd probably go more often," she said. "I do it for him, so he knows somebody cares. I'm still his mother. He's still my son."

Approaching SCI Huntingdon, a surreal landscape unfolds. On one side of the street, there's a row of modest houses, the buzz of lawn mowers and the snapping of laundry in the breeze; on the other, all's quiet, just a double perimeter of barbed wire around the looming prison walls.

Visitors must line up, check in, pass a drug-detection test, proceed through a metal detector, check in again, obtain a wristband and stamp, follow directions to another gate, check in a third time, pass through a second metal detector, and finally navigate a series of clanging gates into the visiting room — where, incongruously, "Super Freak" is playing on the radio.

Inside, visitors and inmates sit in small groups on long rows of vinyl upholstered seats, or in an area designed for children with a lavishly painted mural of Minions on a tropical beach.

When Mason's son finally arrives, her weary face creases with a radiant smile.

"Time seems to stand still in there," she said later. "I always think, I don't know how I could be there for five hours, and then the fifth hour comes and you want to stay. It's another world."

Prisons as growth industry

The prison feels a world apart from Huntingdon Borough, the sleepy county seat just a 20-minute walk away.

SCI Huntingdon was put there by the influence of local politicians in 1878, according to Steve Kemp, a Huntingdon County historian. Back then, Huntingdon was a rail hub for coal distribution. But in the middle of the last century, as the deep mines closed and the railroads went bankrupt, the region suffered a depression.

"The sad part is, nothing really replaced it," Kemp said. "This town created an industrial park. They put on a drive to add factories. But they all closed their doors. None is still operating."

By the 1970s, Pennsylvania prisons had become a growth industry. As of 1978, they were 50 percent over capacity. In 1998, the DOC built SCI Smithfield just next door to SCI Huntingdon. It was initially meant for 492 people on seven cell blocks. Since then, by adding four more cell blocks, and turning single-bed cells into doubles, they boosted capacity to 1,380.

These days, everyone in Huntingdon Borough either works in the prisons or knows someone who does.

"My dad worked there 29 years," said Mark Meankesen, who was using a computer in the town library. "My cousin works there, and my nephew. It's a job that can support a family. It's one of the best and only jobs around here."

Donna Lane, 68, a retired schoolteacher, also has family on staff — but she'd never been inside the prison until she became an official visitor with the Prison Society.

Initially, she took the volunteer role because she oversaw in-school suspension, which "made me interested in finding out where my students were going to end up as they continued to not obey rules."

In her position, she said, it's hard not to notice the culture clash and, sometimes, racial tension between staff and prisoners. The county is 92 percent white, while more than half the inmates are black. Moreover, many inmates are from urban areas, while the correctional officers are "country folk — hunters, ATVs, that kind of stuff."

"It's just a different frame of reference," she said. "I think there's an understanding that's been forged, but you do get inmates that make complaints."

‘The question is always about the next one’

Inmates have little control over where they're placed, but there is an incentive available to lifers — a chance to transfer closer to home after five years free of misconduct.

Robert Laboy III, an inmate at SCI Albion, said in a letter that he'd been working toward that goal for five years. But, in March, guards noticed a paintbrush in his cell. He says the tip was worn; they said it was sharpened. He ended up with 30 days in solitary — and, worst of all, at least five more years in Albion.

"I don't get visits. I'm seven hours from home," he wrote. "And now, my mother and children are heartbroken because it will be a while longer before we can see each other."

Albion, almost on Lake Erie, may not be the most logical location to host inmates from all over the state, but it was built in response to an overcrowding emergency. It was fast-tracked in cooperation with the Erie County Prison Authority as one of five state prisons to open in a single year, 1993.

>>READ MORE: Mandatory minimums don't reduce recidivism. So why is Pa. weighing bringing them back?

Now, Schuylkill County's Hansbury said, officials are keeping an eye on criminal justice policy to understand whether the population could possibly contract just as quickly.

The DOC, under pressure to contain ever-increasing costs, has become an advocate for such reductions. It's also seeking to cut inmate numbers, for example with a pilot program instituting "swift, certain and fair sanctions" — in essence, shorter terms for parole violators — in Allegheny County.

"We're trying to improve processes that are delaying releases," the DOC's Bucklen said. "But most of it is out of our hands. It's what the legislature and the courts decide."

If, for example, the mandatory minimum sentences are implemented, the population could creep back up. With Justice Reinvestment, the legislation awaiting state House action, the population could decline.

Every decision in Harrisburg affects Bucklen's calculations. In January, he had projected 2,500 fewer inmates, one fewer prison, and $98 million saved over five years; today, he is no longer forecasting a prison closure in the near term.

Still, Argall said his constituents are watching closely.

"People remain concerned," the state senator said. "The question is always about the next one."