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Philadelphia is Closing 23 Schools While Building A $400 Million Prison

The Philadelphia School District’s (PSD) state-run School Reform Commission voted in March to close 23 public schools, nearly 10 percent of the city’s total, in a move they say is necessary to plug a $304 million budget deficit.

Last month that same Commission followed up with a “doomsday” education budget (more like austerity on steroids) that if left unchanged will result in 3,000 layoffs and the elimination of clubs, counselors, librarians, assistant principals, secretaries, athletics, art, music and more. The Philadelphia Inquirer added that “Class sizes would be larger, and schools would have no aides to help manage them or support staff to monitor lunchrooms and playgrounds.” Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. called the cuts catastrophic and is requesting money from the state, but local media speculates that the GOP-controlled state legislature is unlikely to pitch in.

Considering that the House just passed a corporate tax break that if approved by the Senate will cost the state an estimated $600 million to $800 million a year, the local media is probably right.

No Money for Schools, But Plenty for Prisons!

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and his Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel are spending $400 million to build a brand new prison in Philadelphia, which the Associated Press referred to as “the second-most-expensive facility ever built by the commonwealth, exceeded only by the Pennsylvania Convention Center.” It’s actually two prisons called  State Correctional Institutions Phoenix I and II.

Corbett and Wetzel say the new prison will replace the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, which was originally built to house Philadelphia prisoners, who currently make up 25 percent of Pennsylvania prisoners despite accounting for just one-eighth of the state’s population.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports:

When finished in 2015, the new cell blocks, classrooms, and support space, surrounded by twin 40-foot fences and a LEED-certified earth berm, will replace the old prison and its reinforced-concrete walls as home to 4,000 offenders, including 700 serving life sentences.

But the new prison will have over 800 more beds than the one it’s supposed to replace. On top of that, Graterford “will be mothballed rather than demolished so that it could be used again in the future,” reports to the AP. And as Decarcerate PA notes, if the past is any indication there’s a good chance Graterford will remain a prison:

In 2003, the DOC built a new prison in Fayette County to “replace” SCI Pittsburgh.  The DOC claimed that the Pittsburgh prison needed to be shut down because it was too old and decrepit to fix.  But in 2007, the DOC reopened SCI Pittsburgh to address overcrowding.  Now SCI Pittsburgh—embroiled in lawsuits alleging rampant sexual and physical of prisoners—and SCI Fayette are both filled to capacity. In a recent Daily News article, DOC press spokesperson Sue McNaughton admitted that the existing Graterford will be used to relieve temporary overcrowding in the prison system.

This is just one of  several myths debunked by Decarcerate PA as part of a campaign to stop the state from pouring over $600 million into prison expansion in Pennsylvania, which is why the grassroots group recently helped organize a 100-mile march from Philadelphia to Harrisburg to demand “a people’s budget, not a prison budget.”

Exploiting Communities of Color

Education privatization advocates and prison industry profiteers share the same  target demographic: poor communities of color (makes the “school-to-prison-pipeline” a lot more literal).

Exhibit A is mass school closures, just the latest scheme in corporate school reform being implemented in cities across the country. But the pain is far from evenly distributed.

In Philadelphia, black students comprise 81 percent of those who will be impacted by the closings despite accounting for just 58 percent of the overall student population. In stark contrast, just 4 percent of those affected are white kids who make up 14 percent of Philly students. And though they make up 81 percent of Philadelphia students, 93 percent of kids affected by the closings are low-income. So there you have it. But it’s not isolated to Philly.

(See my latest article for Truthout highlighting racial disparities in DC school closings).

Nevertheless, Wall Street was delighted because fewer public schools mean more charter schools (aka: public funds for private profit). But they can’t go after just any public schools. For now, privatization only works when targeting the most politically disenfranchised communities because in the eyes of decision makers their voices don’t matter.

Is it any coincidence, then, that these poor and mostly black children grow up to be the targets of an even more ruthless prison industry? The numbers alone speak volumes (from the Sentencing Project):

More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For Black males in their thirties, 1 in every 10 is in prison or jail on any given day. These trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the “war on drugs,” in which two-thirds of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

The U.S. spends around $74 billion a year on corrections. Whether  privately or publicly operated, prisons serve as potential cash cows for the companies contracted to build them, clean them, provide food and medical care for their inmates, guard them, operate them and the list goes on.

The same is true for education, except there’s even more money to be made. The U.S. spends over $500 billion on K-12 education each year, which is second only to the military. But what you and I see as an investment in our kids, venture capitalists see as an open market with infinite dollar signs.

It seems that anything and everything is more important than educating black children in America when there’s a profit to be made.

  1. Johnny Ojanpera #

    Great article. This is so hard to believe, but it has been happening for so long right under our noses that “they” have no reason to stop. What kind of force will it take to turn this around?

    June 5, 2013
    • Gerrie #

      Too bad, the Prisons are far more financial investments with greater GUARANTEED returns for the State lynchmen in the “JUSTICE SYSTEM”, than for the benefits of state residents.

      June 6, 2013
  2. You’ve highlighted a brutal truth regarding educating the disadvantaged, which also hints at a larger question: What does it take to successfully provide public education for youths who, unfortunately, bring so many challenges to the classroom? It takes a lot, and it will take a much more massive investment in public education, recruiting more and more highly skilled educators, and reinventing what school looks like. Nobody is bold enough to do this.

    June 6, 2013
  3. Gerrie #

    Interestingly,,,the Prisons are far more financial investments with greater GUARANTEED returns for the State lynchmen in the “JUSTICE SYSTEM”, than for the benefits of state residents.

    June 6, 2013
  4. John #

    The graphic here shows the percentages of black, latino and white students in the newly-closed NYC schools are 59, 43 and 3 percent, respectively. That’s 105 percent of why these kids won’t graduate from those schools, right?

    June 7, 2013
  5. Dom #

    You have sensationalized the title and are exploiting the very people you are trying to help. It is not Philadelphia that is building the prison, it is the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It is not Philadelphia that is closing the schools down, it is the state run school commission. Your title should be “Philadelphia is closing 23 schools while Pennsylvania is building a $400 million prison… in Philadelphia”.

    June 7, 2013
  6. Thank you for your excellent and informative article.

    I was a public defender for 8 years. I can tell you from personal experience that we have an enormous segment of our prison-swaddled nation that has substituted prison for school.

    What a disgrace.

    When you add for-profit prisons into the mix, things just become truly nightmarish. They are literally harvesting our youth for money and then plowing that money back into political races to support candidates that will reward them with truckloads full of citizens to be planted in a cell. Look at Arizona…CCA has several employees active in Gov. Jan Brewer’s campaign and staff. They were rewarded with contracts for illegal immigrants. Cash for flesh. Especially black or brown flesh.

    Make no mistake, Jim Crow is flying high.

    Pennsylvania Judges actually traded jail for kids in exchange for kickbacks from private prisons. See the CNN story here:

    Thank you again for speaking out.

    Glenn Dukes

    June 7, 2013
  7. I hardly know where to start but isn’t it ironic that this is in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love? It’s also fitting because it’s the city where my hero, Noam Chomsky, grew up. The rapacious racists are just getting more & more brazen in their attempts to turn back the clock to the good old days of feudalism. I just started reading Charles Ferguson’s book “Predator Nation,” you know, the director of the documentary “Inside Job” which won an Oscar and revealed how the economic collapse of 2008 came about. As he said in his acceptance speech, and it’s still true, “Not a single one of the top executives responsible for the crimes which brought the world dangerously close to total collapse, has been sent to jail.” After reading his first chapter, I now think that the corporate cockroaches just plain don’t give a damn about public education because even our high tech sector is losing ground fast to India, China, etc. Of course, they also want to break teachers’ unions because they generally vote democratic but again, both parties have betrayed us. And as Chomsky said, “There’s no economic justification for the outrageous college tuition fees, Mexico, a poor country has a relatively good education system and college is mostly free. The high cost of higher education is basically about controlling the public.”

    June 7, 2013
  8. @illwilliam #

    Dr. Umar Johnson speaks of these frequently, but nobody wants to listen….

    June 10, 2013
  9. ChazMikel #

    We need a third-party yesterday.

    June 11, 2013
    • Jimmy F. #

      If it was a Christian Right party (which might be the largest third-party block) that came to power first, would you be saying the same thing?

      June 12, 2013
  10. Jimmy F. #

    People in America need to grow up and realize that criminalizing drugs (and yes, I’m talking about all drugs, not just marijuana) isn’t working and is giving our government an excuse to lock us up. We need to go the way of Holland or Portugal and decriminalize possession and small sales. When you mention decriminalization, individuals get scared that “use” will increase among the general population, but that’s a fallacy. Use would probably increase among Current users, but if the money saved on policing, incarceration, the legal system is actually reinvested into education and drug prevention/rehab programs that work, we can get this under control in the U.S. Right now its a vicious cycle and all drug-driven.

    June 12, 2013
  11. s #

    This article has a lot of percentages on demographics. But there’s nothing on proximity of the schools to other schools, whether or not the closed schools are very old, whether or not the areas where the schools are located have seen fewer and fewer students, and whether or not the schools are even half full. Inner cities are seeing school closures because of 3 reasons: 1 they have a lot more schools than needed for the number of students. 2. The schools are very close to each other. 3. the schools being closed are in fact the oldest schools in the inner cities.

    But of course those stats are not included because the author of this story doesn’t want you to know actual facts used to make the decisions but wants minority students to attend old, half fulled schools in some kind of blind manner. Yes, they do not want a new prison even though the prisons are very over populated and were not built for the present incarceration rates.

    There are 237 schools, the utilization rates are about half but not equally. The areas where the schools are closing are less than 30% utilized, and make up the top 10% of the oldest schools in the city. None of the student impacted would be split up from their class mates and would attend another school within walking distance. This is article omits these facts.

    June 19, 2013
  12. I drop a leave a response when I appreciate a article on a website or I have something to valuable to contribute to the discussion. Usually it is a result of the fire communicated in the article I looked at. And on this article %BLOGTITLE%. I was actually excited enough to drop a thought 😉 I do have a couple of questions for you if it’s okay. Is it only me or do some of the remarks look like they are left by brain dead individuals? 😛 And, if you are writing at other places, I’d like to follow anything fresh you have to post. Could you make a list all of all your communal pages like your twitter feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile?

    June 20, 2013
  13. Jay Johnson #

    How do we fight this it can’t be anything that is just going to happen

    June 20, 2013
  14. We, Iraqis, have known this American culture since 2003. The only thing that USA built or rebuilt in Iraq were prisons (everywhere even in civilian airports) to be run by mercenary private companies like Blackwater, Dyncorp etc. Oh, to be fair, they did something else. In order to win minds and hearts of children whose fathers were raped in these prisons, the US army used to give away to Iraqi children- in a PR stunt- soccer balls to play with while waiting for their fathers to come home dead or alive.

    June 24, 2013
    • Gerrie #

      One can NOT expect anything better from MERCENARY SLAVE EMPIRES obsessed & consumed with LOOTING IRAQI OIL in the name of,,, “liberty, justice, democracy, free-press, human rights, law & order”,,,, blalalalalala,,, etc.

      Too bad, the victims still remain the “DOWNTRODDEN MASSES, waiting to breeze free”.

      June 24, 2013
  15. Stuart Bedford #

    G/Day from Australia, I have a book that you may be interested in reading, you will have to Google it and then download it. It’s called “The Deliberate Dumbing Down Of America and it’s by “Charlotte Iserbyt” Hope you can find it. regards Stuart.

    June 25, 2013

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