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Today’s City Council vote on a new Philly prison: Back taxes, politics and community outrage

Today Philadelphia City Council will take a vote on a bill that will be the first steps to building a prison, only it won’t sound that way.

Updated 11:30 a.m. Thursday: Councilman Henon is holding the bill, and it won’t go up for a vote today. 

Council will (eventually) vote on whether to authorize negotiations to purchase a 58-acre parcel of land from a company called 7777 Philadelphia PA Loan Associates for $7.3 million. Only it’s not clear who currently owns the property, therefore with whom the city would be doing business.

Oh, and some people aren’t exactly looking forward to the prospect of spending millions of dollars worth of taxpayer money to construct an entirely new prison in Northeast Philadelphia — right next to the complex where several currently are located. But officials say that at least one of those facilities, the current House of Corrections, is dilapidated and needs replaced ASAP; some residents say they’d rather see the money spent on schools.

Here’s a look at the issues at hand:

Philly prisons, at a glance

The Philadelphia Prison System manages six major and four satellite facilities, for an inmate count of 8,167 adults as of June 8. The vast majority of those are concentrated in Northeast Philadelphia between 7979 and 8301 State Road near Holmesburg:

Six jails are located in this compound on State Road: Alternative and Special Detention (Minimum Custody-Adult Male), Riverside (All custody level-Adult and Juvenile female), House of Correction (Minimum Custody-Adult Male), Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center (Medium and Close Custody, Adult Male), Detention Center (All Custody Level, Male and Female Adult and Juvenile and Inpatient Mental Health / Infirmary), Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (All Custody level, Adult Male Intake and cook chill food factory).

Here’s the current gender breakdown of the prison population (up-to-date racial breakdowns weren’t immediately available):

In order to care for the 8,000+ inmates housed in the Philadelphia prison system, the city’s budget has swelled. A 2011 Pew report shows how those numbers have grown since 1999:

And this year, Mayor Michael Nutter has proposed an overall prisons budget of $244,896,000.

So about this new prison

Speaking of Mayor Nutter: He’s the one who asked for this all to happen and has, over the last several weeks, walked back on his attachment to the project, saying there aren’t plans for a new prison after all. 

City councilman Bobby Henon, who represents the district where this new prison would be built, says he was asked by Nutter to introduce legislation into Council that would authorize the city to start negotiating with the banks to purchase the plot of land (more on that later). The legislation was rushed through council, briefly put on hold at the end of May, and like we mentioned earlier, is set for a vote today.

Henon contends the new prison is long overdue, saying conditions in the current House of Corrections — built in 1874 — “are deplorable.” He said during a tele-town hall with residents on Wednesday night that if conditions continue and the city doesn’t push forward with a new prison, the federal government may mandate a replacement, removing the city’s ability to manage the process.

“We already lost control of our schools to the Commonwealth,” Henon said, “and I’m not comfortable ceding our prisons to the federal government.”

So why’d Nutter say it’s not happening?

Anyone’s guess. Nutter’s proposed budget includes an $8 million line for the purchase of the land in the Northeast, and clearly Henon is moving forward with his legislation and talking openly about it.

But after the city Planning Commission voted against the purchase (which won’t affect Council’s vote today), Nutter said this, according to KYW News Radio:

“I think the first thing that’s most important is that we’re always factual with our information. That bill is not about a prison,” he said. “That bill is about land adjacent to a dilapidated and old and outdated facility. We have no plans to build a prison anywhere in the Administration. And I ask that we have accuracy in reporting.”

Hairs, splitting! Yes, the legislation itself doesn’t actually contain a requirement that the land purchased along the river be used to construct a new jail. Other politicians have suggested using it for industrial or manufacturing purposes. And with negotiations expected to take a year, the actual decisions on constructing a new prison will be pushed off to the next administration.

And things get complicated here: Democratic primary winner and likely next mayor Jim Kenney opposes the construction of a new prison. His spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said, “He’s suggested using the land to build a facility that would provide real rehabilitation services such as job training, education, mental health, and so on – but not a house of corrections.”

Those who oppose the purchase of the land think Nutter’s just trying to distance himself from what’s now become a controversial bill.

“I focus my ire on Nutter,” said Faye Anderson, a self-described citizen watchdog who’s been outspoken against the new prison. “He’s the one that said he had no plan… but he just doesn’t want to go out the door dealing with the school-to-prison pipeline.”

So why’s this deal seem so shady?

Well, to start, the public has essentially no idea who the city is doing business with as it negotiates this purchase of a 58-acre parcel of land in the Northeast, because the plot at 7777 State Road has been vacant for 20 years and Henon says it’s currently owned by the bank. Well, kinda.

BNP Paribus, a bank, lent $31.6 million to Churchill Residential Development L.P. several years back because the group expected to develop the area. But Churchill ended up in default in 2012, and BNP assumed ownerships of the plot of land. The bank then went to court and received a favorable judgement, so it put the property up for sheriff’s sale so it could reclaim ownership.

That bank bid $100 on the property, which is of course a minimal bid — but the bank knew no one else was interested and no one would have the means to outbid them. After that, BNP reclaimed the property, and assigned the bid to 7777 Philadelphia PA Loan Associates LLC. — pretty clearly a shell company meant to derive gain out of this one purchase.

The transfer tax was paid at Fair Market Value from there at $7.3 million, and so now that’s the price the city is proposing to pay 7777 Philadelphia PA Loan Associates LLC in order to own the property. Henon admitted Wednesday that the company is behind on paying its taxes, something he says he intends to do “due diligence on” if Council authorizes the city to begin negotiating.

The issue is no one knows who they’re negotiating with. Information on who is behind 7777 Loan Associates hasn’t been made publicly available, and no public officials have, to date, revealed who owns the company. According to The Daily News, Chris Sawyer, a candidate for sheriff who also runs the website Philadelinquency.com, filed a Right-to-Know request for information about who is behind the corporation that owns the land.

“We don’t even have to get into the substance of what a new prison would mean,” Anderson said. “This is now about accountability. This is about transparency. You mean to tell me you don’t know who you’re negotiating with?”

If the sale goes through, what’s it mean?

If Council authorizes negotiations, it means just that. That doesn’t mean the 58-acre plot of land will have been purchased, but of course negotiations with the owners would head in that direction.

If the sale would go through after a year or less of negotiations, then Council (which will have a few new members) and the new mayor will have to work out some sort of plan of what to do with the land. It’s adjacent to a massive prison compound, and the current House of Corrections needs badly replaced, some say. It’d be surprising if the land wasn’t used for a new facility.

And if that is authorized, construction of a new jail could take years. After it’d be finished, the inmates would be transferred, and officials say no additional inmates would be added to the system because of the construction of the new structure. The money to build the new facility, Henon says, would not come out of the city’s budget that goes toward schools.

“These fears are misplaced,” he said. “If the city decides to build a replacement prison, it will not draw a single penny from our schools.”

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