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Protesters Criticize New State Prison Construction

A score of protesters gathered outside the downtown office of the design firm Astorino today, where architects are drafting blueprints for a $315.8 million, two-prison compound in Montgomery County.

Members of the activist group "Decarcerate PA" held aloft a banner reading "No More Prisons" while traffic zipped by along Fort Pitt Boulevard.

"The state of Pennsylvania is spending $685 million to construct two new prisons and expand [nine] existing facilities, at a time when they are slashing funding for health care programs, attacking reproductive rights, slashing money for public schools," said Bret Grote of Decarcerate PA.

The state's yearly spending on the Department of Corrections would remain at $1.81 billion under Governor Tom Corbett's 2012-2013 budget proposal; however, the price of prison construction and expansion falls under the Department of General Services.

"What the Corbett administration is working on now, they call Justice Reinvestment, which is reshuffling money within the criminal legal system," said Grote. "What we need is community reinvestment, that is, directing dollars towards front-end programs like education, like child-care, like reproductive health services, and health care services."

In a statement, Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said the governor's proposed budget would lead to "an eventual reduction in the inmate population and state prison spending." The statement said money would be shifted from prisons to "community-based policing and programming."

Astorino employees declined to comment.

The SCI Phoenix compound slated for Graterford, Montgomery County would include two primary buildings: a 2,000-bed medium security prison, and a 2,100-bed "close" security prison. It's set to be completed in 2014, on the grounds of the soon-to-be-closed SCI Graterford prison.