After Inviting Reporters to Outdated Jail, Kenney Kicks Them Out

Journalists were asked to tour the ancient House of Correction last week. On Monday, the mayor said he felt uncomfortable with photographers tailing him.

Kenney House of Corrections

Jim Kenney and Brian Abernathy talk to the press outside the House of Correction in Northeast Philadelphia. | Photo by Jared Brey

There must have been a miscommunication, because Mayor Jim Kenney was clearly unhappy to see a small corps of reporters at the House of Correction in Northeast Philly when he arrived for a tour on Monday. So unhappy that he asked us to leave after about 20 minutes, despite the fact that his administration had previously invited the press to join him there.

A week ago, a spokeswoman for the prison system emailed members of the media to ask them to come along with Kenney for his “first comprehensive tour” of some of the city’s jails. This would enable him to “see the conditions firsthand,” she said; the conditions at the House of Correction, which was originally built in the 1870s, are known to be particularly poor. Once we arrived Monday, we were initially ushered into a waiting area in the House of Correction, and the tour started shortly after Kenney arrived with a small entourage that included managing director Mike DiBerardinis and deputy managing director Brian Abernathy.

The point of the tour was to expose issues with the city’s prisons to people who haven’t had occasion to see inside, said Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt.

“We’re trying to be more open about our criminal justice system as a whole and kind of pull back the curtain and show people why we’re doing things like the MacArthur Grant,” Hitt said.

In April, the city was awarded a $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to reduce the local prison population by one-third over the next three years. Last year, the Nutter administration floated a controversial plan to buy land in Northeast Philly in order to build a new prison to replace the existing House of Correction. (The City Paper later wrote an in-depth report on the conditions at the facility.) Kenney also made reducing the prison population a part of his mayoral campaign.

He tried to tolerate the pictures for a short bit. We went through a visitors’ waiting area, then through a metal detector down a long hallway into the rotunda, a circular room with corridors of cell blocks radiating out from the center. By that time, prison staffers were already keeping us well behind the mayor and his team, out of hearing distance. We went further into the cafeteria, where inmates in beardnets were seated around some tables. Kenney shook their hands. Then we were told we had to go.

House of Corrections. Photo by Jared Brey.

The inside of the House of Correction. | Photo by Jared Brey

“The mayor was notified this morning that the press was going to be there and he expressed some concerns about invading the inmates’ privacy,” Hitt said later in the day. “As the tour went on, he felt more and more like the inmates’ privacy was being invaded.”

Kenney took a few questions outside, speaking to the press for about two minutes.

“I wouldn’t call [the House of Correction] dilapidated, but it’s old and needs not to be used for a prison anymore,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out a way with the MacArthur Grant to get through our situation and reduce this population so that this building can be put away as a part of history. But it is clean and it is maintained by staff as best they can, but again, it’s a 100-year-old building and we need to empty it out and not replace it.”

Then he continued the tour without us.

It’s hard to blame the mayor if he felt uncomfortable with photographers snapping his picture while he toured an outdated city jail, and tried to talk to inmates and their families about the rough conditions there. It could have easily appeared to be a publicity stunt to the people behind bars, and it’s probably to his credit that he didn’t want to make anyone wonder if they were being used as political props. But then why did his staff invite the press in the first place?

Kenney can be a kind of prickly guy sometimes, but this seemed more like an expression of empathy with prisoners than a move to simply avoid reporters. If nothing else, he’s self-aware enough to be discomforted by the thought of what an inmate might see when a politician is walking around a jail having his picture taken. Still, it’s too bad that today turned out the way it did, because the city’s jails are often hidden from public view. Residents deserve a look inside them.

Follow @JaredBrey on Twitter.