By Mike Dunn
PHILADLEPHIA (CBS) — Mayor Michael Nutter’s plan to purchase land in Northeast Philadelphia on which to build a new prison has collapsed in City Council.
The Nutter Administration wanted Council approval to buy a 58-acre parcel adjacent to the city’s current prisons. Prisons officials said the land would be used to replace the aging House of Corrections. Councilman Bobby Henon, whose district includes that site, supports the idea and sponsored the legislation. But after weeks of controversy, Henon has decided to withdraw the bill. In a letter to the Mayor, Henon blamed what he called “uninformed and politically motivated critics” for causing “contention and confusion” about the value of the site.
Henon said he is sending the plan back to committee out of respect for his colleagues on City Council, some of whom question the mayor’s plan.
Critics of the idea said there are far better uses of the property, since it is near the waterfront. And they said that the expected $7 million purchase price for the land would be better used on schools.
But both Henon and Nutter had argued that the purchase would not affect school funding, that the site does not have other development possibilities, and that the city could very well be ordered by a court to build a new prison anyway.
Henon, in his letter, said “the construction of a replacement prison is a matter of both fiscal necessity and basic human rights.” He vowed to convene a working group to study the entire issue.
The councilman had originally hoped to have the plan receive final approval from Council on Thursday, the last meeting before Council’s summer recess. It is unclear if Henon will revive the plan in the fall. The legislation did not specifically call for a new prison — only the purchase of the land — and officials felt that the question of whether to actually build a new jailhouse would fall to the next mayor.
The House of Corrections, which is home to 1,500 inmates, dates from 1874, and Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla says it is in poor condition, is difficult to maintain, and does not support modern correctional practices. The last new prison, built by the city, was the Riverside Correctional Facility for female inmates, which opened in 2004.