A controversial bill that would have let the city buy land being eyed for a new prison is being held, on the eve of its last chance of it being passed before City Council's three-month recess.

Councilman Bobby Henon, in a letter sent to Mayor Nutter and obtained by the Inquirer, said the debate over buying the land was distorted by "uninformed and politically motivated critics" who said the purchase would come at the expense of the city's schools. Henon, who introduced the bill, said Council would reconsider it when the body reconvenes in September.

"This is not a choice between school desks and prison beds," Henon said. "It is easy to play on public fears and to spread information to fuel a culture of inaction. It is much more difficult to make tough decisions, particularly when those decisions most directly affect the least powerful among us."

Henon introduced the legislation on behalf of the Nutter administration. The bill would have allowed the city to negotiate over the next year to purchase 7777 State Road in Northeast Philadelphia. The 58-acre parcel along the Delaware River, which the city says is worth about $7.2 million, is just south of the city's six-facility prison complex.

City officials say a new prison would replace the House of Correction, which was built in 1874 and renovated in the 1920s.

The bill received strong opposition on Council and in the community.

"I just think it's ironic that we would, in these tough competing times, budgetarily chose prisons over graduation rates," Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. said last week.

For three weeks, Henon had decided to not call the bill for a vote. Last week, he said he was prepared to do so, only to change course.

In deciding to let the city purchase the land, Council would have be putting off a bigger decision - whether to build a prison - until the next mayor's administration. Officials have estimated a prison could cost anywhere from $300 to $500 million.

Jim Kenney, the city's presumptive next mayor, originally opposed the land buy but recently has said it seems like a prudent move. But he said he wouldn't use the land for a prison, favoring instead a facility for job training or educational classes for inmates.

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