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Century-old, dilapidated Philly jail is shutting down

It’s the oldest jail in the city

Arial view of the House of Corrections
Via Shawn Hawes, Philadelphia Department of Prisons

For years, the 1927-built Philly House of Corrections (HOC) has been a sore spot for the city, with dilapidated conditions, a poor heating and cooling system, and a layout that’s been called outdated.

But now, an end is in sight for the 667-cell jail, according Mayor Jim Kenney. He announced Wednesday that the HOC will close within the next two years, thanks in large part to Philly’s declining incarcerated population, which has dropped 32 percent in the last three years.

There are just under 200 inmates left in HOC now, and they will either run out their stay in the facility or be moved to another by 2020, according to the city. Once the jail closes, it will likely still be used for training purposes, according to Shawn Hawes, of the Philadelphia Department of Prisons (PDP). There is no plan in place to demolish the building.

The jail, which sits near several other correctional facilities off State Road in the Holmesburg neighborhood of the city, was first built in 1847 before it was razed and rebuilt from the same materials in 1927. It’s the oldest correctional facility in the city, meaning it’s outdated in terms of layout.

“It’s not a modern facility,” Julie Wertheimer, Chief of Staff for the city’s office of criminal justice said Wednesday.

In the central room of the HOC
Photo via Shawn Hawes, PDP

Hawes explained that the prison, which has two floors, was designed with a “spoke and wheel” layout, meaning that the center of the structure features a circular room, with 12 cell-lined hallways—or spokes— coming off of it. The center room gives officers the ability to see down each cell block.

It’s a design that’s much more in line with institutions like Eastern State Penitentiary and early 1900’s correctional facilities than it is with contemporary ones, Wertheimer said.

“With other facilities, how they’re built depends on custody level...They’re built in pods, where there are cells and common spaces,” she said. That’s not the case with HOC.

But issues with the jail extend beyond its outdated design. It also has issues with heating and cooling—namely, no air conditioning in parts of the building, even in the hot Philly summers—and cramped space.

Inside the HOC
Photo via Shawn Hawes, PDP

Over the years, multiple reporters have toured the building and spoken with inmates and staff about its crumbling structure. Council members have discussed shutting it down entirely, especially Councilman Bobby Henon, who drafted legislation for the city to spend $7 million on land in Northeast Philly in order to erect a new jail to replace HOC. The legislation was shot down by lawmakers in 2015, who were concerned about spending that much money on another prison, according to PhillyMag. Henon did not immediately return a call for comment Wednesday.

But now the question of whether or not to build a replacement jail seems to be out the window; the incarcerated population throughout the entire city has decreased by huge numbers in the past few years.

“Reducing our jail population and closing the House of Correction has been among my highest priorities since taking office,” Mayor Kenney said in a statement Wednesday. “Reaching the point where we can shutter this facility once and for all – without needing to build a new prison – is a milestone.”

Part of that declining prison population is thanks to a $3.5 million grant from the McArthur Foundation, which allowed city officials to develop a reform plan that includes focuses on diversion programs for issues with substance abuse and behavioral health.

  • Phila. considering replacing House of Correction []
  • Philly’s House of Corrections in state of decay [WHYY]
  • Why Philly officials say the House of Correction needs to go [BillyPenn]
  • Why nobody should be held in Philly’s House of Correction [Philly City Paper]
  • No new Philly prison (for now) [PhillyMag]

Eastern State Penitentiary

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