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Holmesburg Civic Association grills official on planned new prison

The city wants to spend $7.2 million for waterfront property to replace the House of Correction. A new jail would cost $300 to $500 million.

A view up the river: The city is eyeing land to replace the House of Correction, one of six correctional facilities in Holmesburg.
A view up the river: The city is eyeing land to replace the House of Correction, one of six correctional facilities in Holmesburg.Read more

HOLMESBURG and Mayfair residents made their voices heard last night on whether the city should spend about $7.2 million to buy waterfront property to replace the decrepit House of Correction.

About 65 people showed up at a Holmesburg Civic Association meeting at the Holmesburg Recreation Center and peppered City Councilman Bobby Henon and Commissioner of Prisons Louis Giorla with questions and comments.

"We've been dealing with prisons since 1874 and we're done," said Peter McDermott, of Mayfair. The crowd gave that comment the loudest applause of a two-hour meeting during which Henon and other city officials came to talk about a plan to build a new prison to replace the House of Correction.

"I tell people I live in Prisonburg," said Debby Hayman, of Holmesburg. "We have two methadone clinics and six prisons."Some complained that when inmates are released, they sometimes walk through the area to get to public transportation.

When residents complained that they learned about the plan to build a new jail from the newspaper, Henon apologized and said the Nutter administration had asked him to introduce a bill to authorize city officials to start negotiations. He said the bill only starts a process of investigating the property, including how much environmental remediation may be required at the site, where metals once were recovered.

Both Henon and Giorla painted a bleak picture of conditions at the House of Correction, a building that Henon said was erected in 1874, when Ulysses S. Grant was president.

And although the prison was substantially renovated in 1925, Giorla said, the 140-year-old prison is overcrowded and deteriorating.

"It's old, it's not improvable," Giorla told the Daily News on Monday. "We need to place these inmates in a modern facility, and we need to do it soon."

He said on Monday that the House of Correction had 1,527 inmates when it was designed to house no more than 1,250.

And he told the crowd that the city needs to rebuild the prison because it is under a federal mandate to improve conditions.

Giorla said it makes sense to build a new prison in the same area. The House of Correction is one of six correctional centers near State Road.

But while much of the debate has been about the wisdom of building a prison on waterfront property, mystery still surrounds the owners of the property who may be in talks with city officials about the city buying the 58-acre parcel for up to $7.2 million.

But in addition to paying for the land, some of which is submerged in the Delaware River, the city will be expected to spend another $300 million to $500 million in construction costs.

On Monday, Chris Sawyer, the Republican candidate for sheriff who also runs the website, filed a Right-to-Know request with Henon seeking information about the individuals behind the corporation that now owns the land.