Pri­son sys­tem in fo­cus in Philly

Pen­i­ten­tiary turned-mu­seum holds lessons for pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates of both par­ties

China Daily (USA) - - ACROSS AMERICA - By CHEN WEIHUA in Philadel­phia chen­wei­hua@chi­nadai­

Some­thing is pro­foundly wrong when al­most a quar­ter of the world’s pri­son pop­u­la­tion is in the United States, even though our coun­try has less than 5 per­cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion. 2016 Democratic Party Plat­form

The East­ern State Pen­i­ten­tiary in down­town Philadel­phia looms promi­nently on the tourist map for peo­ple com­ing to the 2016 Democratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion, but its doors are wide open. The first pen­i­ten­tiary in the US was shut down in 1971 and re­opened in 1994 as a mu­seum.

Aside from dis­plays de­scrib­ing its long his­tory since 1829, there is an ex­hibit ti­tled Prisons To­day: Ques­tions in the Age of Mass In­car­cer­a­tion.

Since the 1970s, the US pri­son pop­u­la­tion has jumped more than 600 per­cent to well over 2 mil­lion. In terms of per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion, more Amer­i­cans are locked up to­day than in any other na­tion on the planet.

The mes­sage the ex­hibit seems to con­vey is that the mass in­car­cer­a­tion sys­tem is bro­ken, and to the na­tion’s woe.

The pen­i­ten­tiary was set up through the ad­vo­cacy of US found­ing fa­thers like Benjamin Franklin and a group of re­form­ers known as the Philadel­phia So­ci­ety for Al­le­vi­at­ing the Mis­eries of Pub­lic Pris­on­ers. Their ap­proach was a de­par­ture from the pre­vi­ous pol­icy in the US, mov­ing from pun­ish­ment to pro­mot­ing pen­i­tence.

But that ap­proach di­min­ished by the early 1900s as the sys­tem had to house more and more pris­on­ers, in­clud­ing the no­to­ri­ous Al Capone.

On Tues­day noon, el­e­men­tary school stu­dents were on a guided tour of the pri­son, lis­ten­ing to a guide talk about ev­ery­thing from Al Capone’s cell to a sy­n­a­gogue and the ex­er­cise yard.

Amer­ica’s high in­car­cer­a­tion rate and re­form­ing the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem have been hot is­sues on the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign trail.

Ver­mont Se­na­tor Bernie San­ders has been de­cry­ing the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem for the past year. Speak­ing on Mon­day night at the Democratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion, he said the elec­tion was about the lead­er­ship to re­pair a bro­ken crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.

“It’s about mak­ing sure that young peo­ple in this coun­try are in good schools and at good jobs, not in jail cells,” he told an au­di­ence that in­cluded many of his sup­port­ers.

The 2016 Democratic Party Plat­form, heav­ily in­flu­enced by San­ders, also calls for re­form of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and an end to mass in­car­cer­a­tion.

“Some­thing is pro­foundly wrong when al­most a quar­ter of the world’s pri­son pop­u­la­tion is in the United States, even though our coun­try has less than 5 per­cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion. We will re­form manda­tory min­i­mum sen­tences and close pri­vate prisons and de­ten­tion cen­ters,” the plat­form says.

“When­ever pos­si­ble, Democrats will pri­or­i­tize preven­tion and treat­ment over in­car­cer­a­tion when tack­ling ad­dic­tion and sub­stance use dis­or­der,” it goes on.

Democratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Hil­lary Clin­ton and her hus­band Bill have taken a lot of heat for their records on mass in­car­cer­a­tion.

The 1994 crime bill signed by then Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton and pushed also by then first lady Hil­lary Clin­ton is widely re­garded to have wors­ened the mass in­car­cer­a­tion dilemma in the US with its harsh sen­tenc­ing guide­lines.

On var­i­ous oc­ca­sions, both Clin­tons have in­di­cated it was a mis­take and should be cor­rected.

The Repub­li­can Party Plat­form also calls for re­duc­ing in­car­cer­a­tion, but the lan­guage is not as ag­gres­sive as the Democrats’.

The bro­ken US crim­i­nal jus­tice and pri­son sys­tem is also fea­tured in Michael Moore’s doc­u­men­tary Where to In­vade Next?, which features stark com­par­i­son with Swe­den’s sys­tem.


Ni­cholas Lash, from Las Ve­gas, Ne­vada, holds a poster call­ing to end mass in­car­cer­a­tion in the United States in a protest on Tues­day af­ter­noon across the street from the Philadel­phia City Hall. The Democratic Na­tion Con­ven­tion is be­ing held in the city this week and the re­form of crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem is a key pres­i­den­tial cam­paign issue. A row of cells (right) in East­ern State Pen­i­ten­tiary, which is now a mu­seum.

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