In the coming year, Philadelphia’s oldest operating prison will close its doors. Beginning in 2017, the #CLOSEthecreek campaign brought together local groups to fight to shut down the House of Correction—also known as “the Creek”—as part of their larger platform advocating for decarceration and reform. Built nearly a hundred years ago, the facility incarcerated people in “horrific” conditions, reportedly forcing them to endure alternately freezing and sweltering cells afflicted with mold and exposed, rusted pipes that delivered foul-tasting drinking water.
Advocacy group JustLeadershipUSA gathered local community groups to form the campaign, among them Mothers in Charge, National Workforce Opportunity Network–Community Education Program, Philadelphia Student Union, The Center for Returning Citizens, X-Offenders for Community Empowerment, Women’s Center for Carceral Empowerment, Youth Art Self-Empowerment Project, and Healing Communities. Partner organizations and volunteers lobbied government officials, held rallies, and spoke out in the press to insist the city close and tear down the HOC without building a replacement, then reinvest the financial savings into local communities. By 2018, the city had emptied the House of Corrections of all its residents, and announced plans to close it by 2020.
Formerly incarcerated people and their families have been central to the campaign, organizing and leading groups and events, and also lending their experiences and voices to drive home the urgency of decarceration in Philadelphia. Here, a few participants from the campaign share their perspectives.
Reuben Jones, 55
Jones is JustLeadershipUSA’s Philadelphia Campaign Coordinator and runs the #CLOSEthecreek campaign with other organizers. Beginning at 22 years old, he was incarcerated for 15 years. Since returning home almost 18 years ago, Jones has worked actively for criminal justice reform.
“Until you’ve been through the system, you just don’t know. We talk about incarceration in these sanitized terms, you know. But it’s not. It’s brutal, it’s oppressive, it’s traumatic. We have to start using that kind of language to talk about what it means to be incarcerated so people aren’t as comfortable with sending people there. We have to figure a different way to hold people accountable when they violate community standards. Sending people to prison is a barbaric approach. We wouldn’t cut people’s hands off for stealing something because we know it’s barbaric or not humane. Well, neither is sending people to a chamber to be tortured for 20, 30 years, especially when 90% of the guards are racist. It’s a bad formula for justice.
I want people to understand the true dynamics of our criminal justice system in America and understand that it does not work, especially in terms of accountability or rehabilitation. It works in the context of oppression. It works in the context of codifying slavery. People need to understand this. We want to educate, mobilize and organize.”
Valerie Todd, 46
Todd spent time in the juvenile justice system in 1987, and later was incarcerated in state prison two separate times in 1994 and 2009. Her mother was born in the House of Corrections in 1956. Todd was a speaker during the #CLOSEthecreek campaign and has worked closely with Jones.
“I wanted to be one of the speakers. I was thinking, ‘Yeah, let’s close this! People not prisons.’ I’ll be the first one to say prison saved my life. I was able to really find myself in there because I did a lot of the programs and stuff like that. And, I’m not against people [going] into prisons, but I’m against the conditions in the prison. The newer prisons that are made are inhumane to live in. I can’t imagine the prison that my mother was born in in 1956, how broken it was.”
Jeffrey Jones, 54
Jones is a JustLeadershipUSA Philadelphia Campaign Organizer. He got involved with the #CloseTheCreek campaign after witnessing what his older brothers went through when they were incarcerated.
“We know the current system, as it is right now, is not benefiting Black and brown people. It is not really helping any of the communities where they come from. It’s disenfranchising and targeting. The specific laws that have been created to never help them advance—that’s what’s leading to mass incarceration. We’re looking at the systemic racism and the systemic oppression that causes the growth of prisons and also denigrates black and brown people all together.”
Josh Glenn, 31
Glenn is the co-founder and co-director of Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project (YASP). His organization is a youth-led initiative that works to end the practice of trying and incarcerating young people as adults. Glenn met Reuben Jones through the #No215Jail Coalition, an initiative to make sure new jails were not being built in Philadelphia. Glenn joined the #CLOSEthecreek campaign after seeing how it aligned with YASP’s values.
“We feel like prison is not helpful. We’ve seen from facts, we’ve seen through statistics that prison doesn’t help. It’s about rehabilitation, that’s what helps, right? So, we want the city to invest more in rehabilitation than they do holding people. Holding people means nothing. I could hold you for 30 years and if I didn’t teach you how to change or correct your behaviors, then I’m just holding you so that you can end up a bigger problem in the future. We believe that we shouldn’t focus more on holding people, we should focus more on healing people.”
Wayne Jacobs, 69
Jacobs is the co-founder and Executive Director of X-Offenders for Community Empowerment and was part of the #CloseTheCreek campaign to help close the House of Correction. He grew up in North Philadelphia and spent spent 30 years in and out of prison.
“The city saved a lot of money by closing down the House of Correction prison. We are now focusing on where should the savings be spent at. I, for one, am pushing for an economic development investment with that money. For example, there’s an area in North Philadelphia around Broad & Glenwood. This whole area is zoned for industrial use. Back in the 70s and 60s, that area used to feed that whole surrounding community in North Philly. So, what we want them to do is invest in areas where we can create real economic opportunity for folks from that immediate area. That’s how we can address poverty in that area.”
While the city has agreed to close the House of Correction, #CLOSEthecreek isn’t finished, says campaign coordinator Reuben Jones. Although the facility no longer houses anyone and will close next year, Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney said in 2018 that the city will continue to maintain the building in case the prison population rises again. The campaign has come out against that plan.
“We stick by our principle that the jail should be demolished,” said Jones. “Close it, demolish it, and reallocate the resources back into the community.”
By continuing to maintain the building, he says, the city will be spending resources that could otherwise be used to invest in the communities most affected by mass incarceration. Beyond the fight to shut down the House of Corrections for good, #CLOSEthecreek will continue to push for change in other areas of the criminal justice system, including cutting the city’s current 4,888 incarcerated population to no more than 3,000 people, ending electronic monitoring, opposing the use of pretrial risk assessment tools, and reforming probation. For people aligned with the campaign’s mission, there are plenty of ways to get involved.
“We’re always soliciting volunteers. We need people with specific skills—tech skills, graphic design skills, whatever they can bring to the table—and we also need people out there at rallies, holding officials accountable,” said Jones. Volunteers can join through the campaign’s website or by reaching out to Jones directly.
“We’re always looking for people interested in joining this fight.”