how I will vote on Philadelphia ballot question 2 to create a Department of Prisons.

It’s election season! I was so concerned with Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race that I was shocked when a friend told me that there is a jail measure on Philadelphia ballots. It is not every day a jail issue comes to the ballot, and surprisingly, activist groups have been quiet on this issue and there is not a lot of clear information available.

Here is the ballot question:

Shall The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to transfer responsibility for managing and operating the City’s jails from the Department of Public Welfare and the Board of Trustees of Philadelphia Prisons to a new Department of Prisons and Board of Trustees?

Here is the plain english statement:

Currently, the City’s Home Rule Charter assigns the responsibility of operating the City’s prisons to two entities. The Board of Trustees of Philadelphia Prisons is responsible for the direction and control of the management of the City’s prisons, which includes selection of the Superintendent of the City’s prisons, who administers the City’s prisons. The Department of Public Welfare (commonly referred to as the Department of Human Services, or “DHS”) has general supervisory responsibility in connection with the City’s prisons.

The proposed Charter change would create a new Department of Prisons, responsible for operating the City’s prisons. The Department would be headed by a Prisons Commissioner, who would supervise the management and operation of the City’s prisons. He or she also would be responsible for maintaining a program for facilitating the reintegration of individuals returning from incarceration. The Prisons Commissioner would be appointed by, and would report to, the City’s Managing Director. The Board of Trustees of Philadelphia Prisons would be responsible for adopting standards and guidelines to be considered by the Prisons Commissioner when making policy relating to the City’s prisons.

Ok, so this is a proposal to make a new government agency separate from the Department of Public Welfare (DHS) and the Board of Trustees of Philadelphia Prisons. I was surprised by this because many jail and prison agencies at the county and state levels did this between the 1940s and the 1970s (often called a “Department of Corrections”). I don’t know the story on Philadelphia’s current system- a history of the Board of Trustees would make a great senior thesis. That said, here are some key issues:

1. At stake seems to be who appoints the Prisons Superintendent or Commissioner.

This raises two questions for me:

a. Who is currently on the Board of Trustees of Philadelphia Prisons?

Here are the bios of the Board appointees from 2008. First thing I notice is that it doesn’t include any corrections professionals or people who study corrections issues, but it does include several lawyers, a doctor, a social worker, an activist, and a strategic planner. All of these people are appointed by the Mayor.

b. Who is the city’s Managing Director?

Richard Negrin. Here is his twitter feed. Also an appointee of the mayor, he is a lawyer, former prosecutor, and “Vice President, Associate General Counsel and a member of the Executive Leadership Council of ARAMARK Corporation.”(Here’s his linkedin profile) Aramark, which contracts to provide food in many prisons, has been in the news recently for maggots in prison food in Michigan and has a long track record of problems nationwide. It appears that Aramark, a Philadelphia-based company, holds the contracts to Philadelphia Prisons. So there is possibly a conflict of interest here; at the very least, having someone in charge with a connection to prison profiteering makes me pretty uncomfortable.

2. At stake is also that the new Prisons Commissioner “would be responsible for maintaining a program for facilitating the reintegration of individuals returning from incarceration.”

The Mayor’s RISE reentry program (whose website is dead apparently) is a pretty popular initiative that, I’m guessing, Mayor Nutter would like to see made more permanent and could be operated more efficiently if tied to the Department of Prisons.

3. Not explained in the statement, but in this testimony from a Senior Policy Analyst at the Committee of Seventy, are the implications creating a Department of Prisons would have for hiring people exempt from civil service requirements rather than doing internal civil service promotions.

The practical consequence of this arrangement is the Prison Commissioner’s inability to appoint deputies exempt from civil service regulations. (The Charter allows up to 10 for each department.) Although the DHS Commissioner has this authority and could make appointments on behalf of the prisons, doing so would require sharing the DHS allotment of appointments. At this time, DHS has nine exempt positions. The prison system has none. All three of Commissioner Giorla’s deputies were promoted according to civil service rules.

Providing agency executives with latitude to choose their own deputies, should they opt to do so, is a critical facet of effective governance. In addition to the DHS Commissioner, other city department heads use this authority. The Police Department has seven exempt deputies and the Fire Department has five – both similar to the prison system not only in their size and complexity, but also in the gravity of their work.

Civil service exemptions for the city (explained here) would allow the Prisons Commissioner to hire his/her own deputies to implement their Prison Commissioner’s agenda. This seems to be in contrast to hiring such people from within civil service- people that, in corrections, would have usually come up through the guard ranks. Hiring outside administrators can be a way to check entrenched systems of corruption that condone brutality. That said, I am more inclined to think that exempt positions could just be patronage positions. As this deputy component is not written into the question we are voting on it, I’m not sure how much this aspect of it should be brought to bear on voting decisions.

Here’s how I feel:

I am skeptical about consolidating power from a Board of Trustees with a range of experiences and perspectives into the hands of an individual with strong ties to Aramark. While a “yes” vote on this wouldn’t eliminate the Board of Trustees, I am not convinced that passage of this change to the city charter would, say, lead to the hiring of someone other than the current commissioner, who himself came up through the guard ranks in Philadelphia Prisons, as did the rest of his executive staff.

As a jail historian, I am not keen on jail reform discourse that centers on bureaucratic efficiency. Quite often, making a jail system more efficient seems to do no more than make it more efficient for jails to expand or detain ever larger numbers of people. Efficiency does not eliminate brutality or ensure that detainees and inmates are safer in the jail.

So, there are two ways to vote. A “no” vote will not change anything. Usually, that would be enough to persuade me to vote “yes” because I’m a pretty progressive person. But I’m not convinced, for this particular, measure, that a “yes” would lead to the kind of change I want.I do not think a “yes” vote on this ballot question will do much to change the status quo in Philadelphia Prisons. I am concerned that giving a former Aramark VP power over Philadelphia Prisons could have very negative outcomes for people living in Philadelphia Prisons. I am not convinced that a “yes” vote will do much to advance the cause of human dignity in Philadelphia Prisons. Recent reporting on a beating that took place in front of jail visitors suggests to me that there are far greater issues in Philadelphia Prisons we need to investigate before making any changes. Without more information or public discussion of this issue, I am inclined to vote no.

Please feel free to share your perspective in the comments.

UPDATE: I heard from Decarcerate PA, they are also continuing to investigate this initiative.

Also, there is a new piece on brutality in Philadelphia Prisons by Daniel Denvir worth checking out. Even deeper in the past than a consent decree, the Board of Trustees would have provided oversight and accountability on these sorts of issues. More substantive reform might rethink the BOT and the mayor’s total control over appointments (in this way- and probably only this way- having a county board might be helpful).

A friend on facebook points out that this likely won’t be implemented under the current Mayor’s administration. So perhaps the real how many people you want signing off on the Prisons Commissioner? Tricky.