State parole freeze bloating prison populations

Two weeks after Gov. Rendell halted paroling state inmates, the population of Pennsylvania’s 27 prisons continues to swell.

Officially, the Sept. 30 monthly census – taken one day after Rendell froze paroles in response to the killing of Philadelphia Police Officer Patrick McDonald by a paroled felon – showed that the inmate population of 46,883 was eight percent above what prison officials say is needed to maintain “quality of life and safety for both staff and inmates.”

Prison experts now say overcrowding is actually closer to 17 percent above capacity and they worry about how the system will hold up without that monthly release of 1,100 parolees.

“If this lasts two months, you’re talking about enough people to fill a completely new large prison,” said William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a 221-year-old inmate advocacy group.

Rendell named John S. Goldkamp, head of Temple University’s criminal justice department, to do a top-to-bottom review of how the Board of Probation and Parole decides who gets paroled. Goldkamp’s review will presumably be expedited, though Rendell set no deadline.

“We’re awaiting [Goldkamp’s] recommendation,” Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo said. “Clearly, the danger posed by an error for a citizen outweighs the impact on the system.”

Still, Ardo said, Rendell will keep open the option of restoring parole for inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes if prison conditions warrant.

Meanwhile, the parole freeze is being felt throughout Pennsylvania.

“A lot of people involved in the system are beside themselves,” DiMascio said. “They think the freeze was unnecessary, or could have been done without freezing all paroles.”

Betty Jean Thompson, state leader of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, said several families had called her about relatives whose release was stopped.

Thompson, a Philadelphia teacher who got involved with CURE 12 years ago when her son was in prison, said the freeze meant those about to be paroled could lose promised jobs, places to live, and the chance for new lives.

“Many of these people are men and women who deserve a second chance,” Thompson said.

The action affects more than inmates; correctional officers have long complained about being outnumbered by often-volatile prison populations, a situation that is likely to become more uneasy as the moratorium increases inmate populations – and potentially explosive stress.

Roy Pinto, vice president of the 10,500-member Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, said that there were 500 vacant officer jobs and that 200 more officers were on active duty with the National Guard or reserves.

Pinto said he was also worried that the parole moratorium comes at the same time the U.S. economy is flagging, traditionally a time when more people wind up in prison.

“We’re trying to cut a few people loose early, but they’re pouring in the other end,” said Pinto, an officer for 17 years at Rockview in Central Pennsylvania.

Correctional officers have reason to worry.

Overcrowding was considered a major cause of the Oct. 25, 1989, riot at Camp Hill prison near Harrisburg. The four-day rampage injured 138 prison officers and 70 inmates and destroyed half the prison.

Pinto said demand for cell space has been so high that the old state prison in Pittsburgh, closed in January 2005, was reopened last year.

“It’s even worse for parole agents,” Pinto added. “Their workload has increased so much they can’t really do their job.”

Sherry Tate, a spokeswoman for the Board of Probation and Parole, said agency officials would not comment until after the parole review.

County prisons will also feel the impact of the freeze.

Bob Eskind, spokesman for the Philadelphia prison system, said the city system typically released 630 people a week who made bail, completed a county sentence, or were released on probation or parole. Some are state inmates who, for various reasons, are housed in county facilities.

An additional 89 local inmates a week are sent to serve state prison sentences.

In a seriously overcrowded system – Philadelphia’s prisons now hold about 145 percent of their rated 6,433-bed capacity – Eskind said officials depend on “one in and one out.”

As the moratorium continues, some prisoner advocates are considering a lawsuit.

Angus Love, a veteran prisoner advocate and executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, said, “There is nothing in the statute [creating parole] that says the governor has a unilateral right to end parole.”

Love said many people assumed that Rendell’s order was just for inmates convicted of violent crimes; they were stunned to learn the moratorium affected all potential parolees.

Rendell issued the moratorium just days after he signed a package of bills that allow early release of nonviolent offenders who agree to complete education and job-training programs and who show good behavior in prison.

CURE’s Thompson said she found the wholesale halt to parole illogical: “If a surgeon kills his patient, we don’t stop all surgeries.”



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