Closing prisons isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. It’s a thing.

By Andy Hoover, Communications Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Over the ten years or so that I’ve been involved in advocating for reforms to end mass incarceration, many of us have trotted out a talking point that goes something like this: “Look at <insert state that did reform successfully>. They’re closing prisons.”

Now Pennsylvania is one of those states.

Last Friday, Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced that the DOC will close two state prisons. The department identified five finalists for closure.

Closing prisons is a good thing if it’s happening for the right reasons. Governor Wolf said the closures would be a cost saving measure at a time when strains on the state budget are significant. Wetzel said transferring the inmates from closed prisons would be manageable.

Since 2009, the population of Pennsylvania’s state prisons has decreased by 7.6 percent, from a peak of 52,000to its present population of 48,000. That’s roughly the equivalent of two prisons.

(Source: Pennsylvania Department of Corrections via the Council of State Governments)

According to Wetzel, the closures will increase capacity of the department’s institutions from 103.5 percent to 109 percent. Wetzel has also told the press that it will put the system at 92 percent of emergency capacity, meaning putting beds where beds were not designed to go.

But what happens when the department puts the same amount of people into a smaller space? A prison is like a small town of a few thousand people. Any time the population increases significantly in a short amount of time, it has the potential to strain resources and services.

We and our allies have raised concerns about the impact on the living conditions of inmates. John Hargreaves of the Pennsylvania Prison Society told Pennlive.com, “When they run out of space, the dayrooms and the gyms are filled up with beds,” he said. “Those are the places the inmates go to get out and let out steam.”

The ACLU of Pennsylvania had a case like this in 2009. SCI-Coal Township housed inmates in a day room. The bathroom facilities were outside the day room, and the inmates were locked into the day room at night. Thus, at night, they had no access to restrooms. According to a letter sent to the prison by our legal director, Vic Walczak, inmates were forced to use “unsanitary methods” of relieving themselves at night, including urinating into coffee bags and trashcans. “Many times, coffee bags filled with urine sit in the dorm overnight, in close proximity to inmates’ eating utensils,” Vic wrote. “We have also received reports of involuntary defecation in the dorms.”

There’s a second question that the press hasn’t discussed since the DOC’s announcement. Is the commonwealth doing enough to lower prison populations?

Ann Schwartzman of the Prison Society articulated this to Pennlive. “We, as a society and a state, need to think through why we are punishing and incarcerating so many people,” she said.

The DOC’s population is down almost eight percent in eight years. That sounds like an achievement. But is that satisfactory? Mississippi decreased its population 17 percent in two years by reforming its parole system. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, the legislature and then-Governor Tom Corbett repealed our early release program in 2012.

Some states have altered the structure of certain crimes to take a common sense approach to sentencing, including connecting the threshold for felony retail theft to inflation, increasing the quantity of drugs a person must possess before a more serious felony charge kicks in, and making a distinction between home burglaries that occur when a home or building is occupied and when it is unoccupied.

Here in Pennsylvania? We have revised felony retail theft, too. The General Assembly decreased the threshold of the value of stolen property for a felony retail theft charge from $2000 to $1000 in 2013. We haven’t touched quantities in drug offenses (though mandatory minimum sentences remain unenforceable, thanks to favorable rulings in federal and state courts). And home burglary is the same felony charge whether someone is home or not.

These are just a few examples of how other states have been more serious about ending mass incarceration than Pennsylvania has. Sometime this month, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project initiated by the commonwealth’s three branches of government to analyze data on the criminal justice system and to offer recommendations for a more efficient system, will release its final report. At a meeting last month, researchers for the project stated that, if every recommendation is implemented, our state prison population will drop one percent by 2022. That hardly qualifies as bold thinking.

In our work on mass incarceration, the closing of prisons has never been an end unto itself. It’s a result of the goal we seek, and the goal we seek is a common sense approach to sentencing and parole policy that reduces the number of inmates in state prisons and county jails. If that’s why two state prisons are closing, that’s great. If the DOC does not carefully monitor conditions for the same amount of people in fewer spaces, then they can expect to hear from us and our allies again.