update: Philadelphia ballot question 2 to create a Department of Prisons.

One of my favorite books to teach is John Lewis Gaddis’ The Landscape of History. Gaddis contends “that the historian of the past is much better off than the participant of the present from the simple fact of having an expanded horizon.” (4) The more I write of my dissertation, the more I agree with Gaddis- being an on-the-ground actor is frustrating when you are sure that there are lots of variables at work that you can’t see.

I point this out because I tried to inform myself on Philadelphia’s ballot question 2, which offers a change to the city charter regarding Philadelphia Prison System’s place in the bureaucratic tangle of city agencies. I felt like I came up short, and indicated that I would probably vote “no” given the lack of good information. Much to my surprise– truly, because usually most everyone I write about is dead– Lou Giorla, commissioner of PPS, read my post and encouraged me to get in touch and ask some questions.

The long and the short of it is, according to the Commissioner, “yes” on the ballot question doesn’t change much administratively. PPS has been, since 1990, operating as a department independent from the Department of Public Welfare. Apparently, when this change was made organizationally but not to the charter (the answer to “why” confirms to me again that this would make an interesting research project). The issue came up again in 2009 when PPS sought some of the hiring and negotiation capacities that other agencies (the exempt hiring thing), such as the Fire Department and Police Department, have. However, because 2009 was a terrible time for local governments (you may recall that whole financial collapse thing), the measure was effectively tabled. The measure was revived in an effort to bring the charter into line with how government has been operating. This requires a ballot question to change the city charter. From what I understood the Commissioner as saying, this won’t interfere with the current functions of the Board of Trustees. There is a pretty no cost measure- the Commissioner said it would require “no new stationary” because again, the ballot question moves to ensure that the charter reflects an organic change in governance that has occurred over time.

On the issue of RISE, which I think for many people may be the bigger issue, the Commissioner noted that RISE is already somewhat integrated into PPS already because PPS works with such a large number of folks needing immediate access to reentry services because they may be in a PPS pretty briefly. In the past, RISE’s predecessor MORE operated separately from PPS, and was problematic as PPS was looking to do more for reentry. According to the Commissioner, bringing RISE into PPS will help it to have a better defined funding stream. I think this is pretty much in line with the “pros” I considered in the original post. A commenter on the post raised a good question (some of the comments went onto my About Me page, so I’ll post it here):

“I wonder about combining city re-entry programs under the same management as the prisons. The two are at odds. (One focuses on keeping people in, and its budget grows as the number of prisoners grow; the other focuses on keeping people out of prison.) Will programatic goals for prisons overwhelm those for re-entry?” I think that is a question worth chewing on, and this is a question that, if the ballot issue passes, we should continue to ask as people remain tethered to corrections systems long after release.

I’m still mulling over this new information and probably will be until I get into the ballot box, but overall, I think this is a good reminder that:

1. even as I write the story of one particularly messed up jail in Chicago, I should be paying attention to the jail in my own city, and

2. getting touch with your local officials can be really easy. Who knew?

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