About 50 people converged on Tuesday afternoon July 17 along Route 29 in Montgomery County near the Graterford State Prison to declare their opposition to the building of more prisons and the expansion of existing prisons like Graterford in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Graterford is already a massive institution.
The theme of the demonstration was Jobs Not Jails and Schools Not Prisons. Specifically, there was the $685 million sought by the Corbett administration in Harrisburg for over 8,000 new prison beds in the state — this at a time many citizens feel the state should be re-evaluating things like the dismally failed Drug War and clearing inmates out of its prisons, thus saving the taxpayer money and re-directing funds to more beneficial areas.
The main group organizing the demonstration was Decarcerate PA, a coalition of organizations and citizens fed up with the trend that emphasizes more prisons while things like education and health care get squeezed and cut to the bone.
Organizers said this effort was an experiment, since no one had ever mounted a demonstration in the area of Graterford Prison, a massive complex in Montgomery County west of Philadelphia. The area is pretty conservative. So the demonstrators were cautious.
The intersection off Route 29 for the Graterford Prison entrance road was well covered with about ten state police officers milling around and waiting. This reporter arrived a little early and, planning to walk over to speak with the police, parked in the tavern parking lot across from the entrance. But within 20 seconds, two state troopers were at my window. We were politely told the owner of the tavern did not want the likes of us in his lot.
The troopers told us there was a parking lot a half mile away where demonstrators could park and collect. In modern police parlance, that meant that lot was designated to be the “free speech zone” for the afternoon.
As Decarcerate PA folks arrived and the crowd grew in the blazing heat of the parking lot, it was decided the group would march single file toward the Graterford entrance. Immediately, a state police car with lights flashing met the group and stopped it.
Trooper Furlong, in the photo above, did the talking, and he was very polite and friendly. He said all the businesses in the vicinity of the Graterford entrance had been polled and no one wanted the demonstrators on their private property. The entrance intersection is, indeed, a pretty tight spot.
So the group set up shop on the grass along Route 29 by the Perkiomen Valley High School parking lot. It sloped upward like an amphitheater and was a great place visually for cars passing by to see the signs and demonstrators.
Here, the police were very professional. Technically, they said, the grass was Perkiomen Valley property and therefore “private” or at least not “public” enough for the group to remain there. For some reason, the designated area across from the fire station was public enough; it was Township Property.
So it was a bit confusing what was private property and what was public property and where one could exercise ones First Amendment rights. Just as an example, I pay thousands of dollars annually to another Montgomery County very public school district. So the police wisely let the matter go and demonstrators waved their signs and used a bullhorn to broadcast their views about building more prisons while cutting funding for education. This crowd felt education was a good investment in America’s future strength and that the last thing we need — like a hole in the head — was even more expensive, cash-cow prisons into which judges will be encouraged to send men and women at a rate of $40 to $50,000 a year of citizen tax resources.
The reactions of drivers and passengers in cars passing the demonstration was mixed. Some tooted their horns and gave thumbs up. And as was expected, there was the usual car that whizzed by with a voice screaming, “Get a job!” or “Go home!” Which is interesting since all the demonstrators thought jobs was a good idea. A few drive-bys, of course, flipped the bird. And, finally, there were the usual patriots who felt an NRA bumper sticker made them better Americans than those beside the road advocating for more resources for education.
On a sober note, it’s likely many Graterford guards and employees live in the area. They had surely heard of the demonstration, and some of them may have been driving by. For prison guards — or corrections officers — the issue can be a personal one, a matter of a job and a livelihood. No one should take that lightly.
But more jobs is a bad reason to build more prisons and to short-change things like education.
JOHN GRANT is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper.