The city of Philadelphia is in the last-stage throes of preparing for the Democratic National Convention, which includes allocating the estimated $50 million in federal funds earmarked for security issues at the event. Some of those funds will be spent on overtime costs for law enforcement, related miscellaneous supplies including “public safety radios [and] motorcycle helmets,” and backup private security forces. The money will also be used to reopen a long-shuttered prison — one where inmates were once used as guinea pigs in biochemical research — to potentially hold spillovers of protesters arrested during the convention.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports Holmesburg Prison, which was built 120 years ago and closed in 1995, will be readied for use in case a large number of protesters are taken into custody.
“If we had to activate Holmesburg, that would be out of necessity for a mass-arrest kind of processing situation,” Shawn Hawes, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, told the outlet. “We’re always ready to open whenever necessary, so, like the city, we’re hoping for the best, preparing just in case.”
Hawes said the prisoners would be specifically held in the gymnasium, which was recently renovated in advance of the convention and has 100 beds, air conditioning and showers. The Inquirer notes that Hawes “was quick” to note that other parts of the prison — which has been used in various films, including a recent horror movie — will not serve to house inmates.
Holmesburg’s notorious history has added to the controversy around the decision to reopen its doors. Wikipedia notes that for decades, the prison was the site of “dermatological, pharmaceutical, and biochemical weapons research projects involving testing on inmates.” The site is “also notable for several major riots in the early 1970s as well as a report released in 1968 of the results of an extensive two-year investigation…documenting hundreds of cases of the rape of inmates.”
There are also concerns about how the city plans to handle non-violent protesters during the convention, which will be held from July 25 to 28. The ACLU sent an open letter to Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney earlier this month expressing frustration over the fact that the city has refused to confirm earlier promises that protesters will not be arrested for lacking a permit. “[T]he City Law Department seems to have walked back several statements made earlier about how the city will accommodate protest during the DNC,” the letter states. “The new positions articulated by the Law Department raise serious First Amendment issues.”
The group drew attention to the city’s refusal to grant protest permits to march down a city street “which has traditionally been one of the most used march routes for Philadelphia demonstrations.”
The Inquirer reports that just 13 demonstration permits have been issued thus far, and says the city estimates 50,000 protesters will show up.
When Philadelphia hosted the Republican National Convention in 2000, some 400 protesters were arrested. The city was hit with several wrongful-arrest lawsuits, settled using insurance coverage. The Inquirer reports that, in an effort to avoid a similar situation, the City Council voted last week to lessen penalties for “‘nuisance crimes,’ such as blocking traffic, failure to disperse, and disorderly conduct.”