As Ashley Stalnecker wrote in last week’s Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline, Lancaster city residents have begun imagining what could become of the nearly 5-acre East King Street site where Lancaster County Prison now stands. The county is conducting engineering studies on a 75-acre site in Lancaster Township located about 1.5 miles away from the current prison to see if it would accommodate a new prison. As Stalnecker reported, “The county has a $3 million agreement to buy the land from Clyde and Shirley Kreider, but it has until Nov. 21 to pull out of the deal if the site is deemed unsuitable.” She noted that if the East King Street prison does close, it would “join more than 100 prisons nationwide that have closed or are pending closure in the past decade, according to a 2016 study by The Sentencing Project.”
We will not mourn the hulking structure that now serves as Lancaster County Prison. A new prison will be a more humane prison.
And with its crenellated towers and faux portcullis, the 170-year-old current prison at 625 E. King St. always has seemed like an aberration in Lancaster city — as if it been relocated from a theme park trying desperately to conjure up Ye Olde England.
Debra Lefever, who has lived for 40 years in the prison’s neighborhood, is among the residents who would be glad to see it go, according to Stalnecker’s reporting.
We would be glad, too. As much as we prize history and historic buildings, we hope the city’s Historical Commission sees the prison as the ill-fitting and inauthentic structure it is (the real thing is in Lancaster, England). Moreover, as Stalnecker noted, the “prison has loomed over the city like a dark cloud” because it reminds residents “of painful mistakes and troubled history.”
At a July 9 meeting at Garden Court Apartments, located three blocks south of the prison, eight neighborhood residents gathered to discuss their hopes for the prison site. Wrote Stalnecker: “The meeting was the first of many to be organized by community leader Darlene Byrd, who founded the South Ann Street Concerned Citizens group in 1989 to address safety issues. Over the years the organization has evolved to include youth programs, beautification and education.”
Garden Court resident Samantha Krizmencic said at that meeting that as “someone who was born and raised in Lancaster, I would not be proud of that (the prison).”
Neighborhood resident Gary Olsen said the area “desperately” needs a grocery store or a shopping center with stores that would be accessible, especially for senior citizens. He mentioned the controversial closing of Giant’s nearby North Reservoir Street location in May 2017. Two years later, Giant opened a Giant Direct at the location, providing home delivery of groceries and curbside pickup for neighborhood customers. But it’s not the same as a full-service supermarket.
We have two hopes for the East King Street site: First and most importantly, that residents will have some say about what is built there. And second, that the prison will not be turned into a tourist attraction like Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia or Pennhurst Asylum in Chester County.
We’ll address our second hope first, as we believe it’s the unlikeliest scenario and can be dispatched quickly. Writing for LNP | LancasterOnline in 2018 about the use of asylums, in particular, as “haunted” attractions, Dennis B. Downey, author and emeritus professor of history at Millersville University, characterized the phenomenon as a “commercialization of atrocity.”
While Lancaster County Prison’s history differs from the real-life horrors of Pennhurst, a great deal of suffering has been seen within its walls. As Stalnecker reported, executions “were carried out there until 1912, and 16 inmates have died by suicide there since 1998.”
And as South Ann Street resident Ted Gray noted at the neighborhood residents’ July meeting, “There’s a lot of people that have been in jail,” so the prison does not evoke good memories.
Indeed. Its castle façade may make the prison look like a tourist attraction, but there’s nothing appealing about the crumbling facility or what it signifies.
So now to our first hope.
We realize that the prison property is owned by Lancaster County. But we agree with Democratic county Commissioner Craig Lehman that Lancaster city long has borne the burden of hosting the prison and so deserves to benefit from the site’s future use. Currently, it is yet another tax-exempt city property, like the Lancaster County Government Center and the Lancaster County Courthouse, in a city that badly needs more tax revenue.
“If the city wants the property after the current facility is razed and prepared for development, that is fine with me,” Lehman said in an email to LNP | LancasterOnline. “I support the county preparing the site for development, at its cost, before transferring it to the city.”
But Republican Commissioner Ray D’Agostino said the county must determine if it has a use for the East King Street property. He indicated that the county likely would sell the land through sealed bids.
“None of this has been discussed yet, and likely would not be until first we close on the purchase of the property” for the new prison, D’Agostino said, according to Stalnecker’s reporting. (Josh Parsons, chairman of the county commissioners, did not respond to requests for comment for Stalnecker’s article.)
The Republican commissioners sometimes seem to behave as if Lancaster city is not part of the county, as if they had no obligation to the city’s residents. But the commissioners do owe it to city residents to seek their input about how they would like to see the East King Street site be used. Elected officials are obligated to be responsive to all their constituents.
Lancaster City Council President Ismail Smith-Wade El said officials need to “resist the urge, frankly, to be prescriptive … about what folks in that community do and don’t need.”
Said Smith-Wade El: “They’ve been specific about the desire for housing, green space, more employment and economic opportunities, so if it doesn’t fit into those buckets, I would have some serious questions about the benefit that it presents to the community, which really ought to be the final question.”
Aside from his wonky use of the term “buckets,” we agree with Smith-Wade-El. What city residents do not seem to want, according to Stalnecker’s reporting, are more upscale apartments or condos. They know more than anyone that this county — the whole county, not just Lancaster city — desperately needs more affordable housing.
As Smith-Wade-El pointed out, Lancaster city has an overall median income of roughly $45,000. Housing is considered affordable if it costs less than 30% of a person’s income. But most affordable housing units in Lancaster are based on the county’s median income of $66,000.
An affordable mixed-use housing development, with a grocery store, should be at the top of the list of options for the East King Street site. But that’s only our opinion. We encourage the county commissioners to find out what the prison’s neighbors would like to see take the place of the dismal castle-like structure that stands there now.