Philadelphia mayor plans prisons for drug users

Site for proposed ‘Wellness Village’ prison for drug users in red outline.

A little over six months into her term, Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker is making big moves against what she claims is the city’s  “drug problem.” Her promise to end open-air drug markets and end homeless encampments in certain neighborhoods — specifically Kensington — has been one she has tried to fulfill. With sweeps that attacked primarily drug users rather than drug dealers, she’s known now as an enemy of the oppressed and of people who use drugs. 

The Philadelphia Police Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) attacked encampments in Kensington earlier this year, only spreading the problem even further. Parker has launched public attacks on non-profits, such as Savage Sisters and Prevention Point Philadelphia, which provide life-saving services to mitigate the health harms from addiction. 

This time around, Parker has outdone herself in her plots against the drug-using community. Her budget has earmarked $100 million to create a facility to treat Substance Use Disorder. Dubbed the “Riverview Wellness Village,” This creation will provide treatment, job training, Medication Assisted Treatments such as methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone, and housing for homeless drug users.

In reality, this deceptively named facility will be a prison for drug users. It will be built directly next to the Riverside Correctional Facility, the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, the Philadelphia Detention Center, and the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center. 

The facility will act as a center for people seeking or being forced to get treatment, with the administration admitting outright that some people would not be there voluntarily. Mayor Parker claimed that the facility would not “criminalize addiction,” but also said that she would not hide from the fact that it would be a “secure” facility, codeword for prison-light. 

Mike Driscoll, a member of the NIMBY [Not in my back yard] anti-drug user force known as the Kensington Caucus, has openly admitted it would be a “secure prison complex.”

This plot is not unprecedented in the history of the United States. The first secure prison or prison-light complex for drug users was the United States Narcotic Farm in Lexington, Kentucky.  This facility, opened in 1935, was used as a treatment facility, research center and prison. 

The mission of the facility was to treat chaotic users but also to use them for research.  In order to study the role the brain plays in chaotic drug use (then called “addiction”), they used cocaine, opiates such as morphine and methadone, and psychedelics to see how the brain reacts and how it impacts their drug use.

The United States Narcotic Farm was also home to the first 12-Step program for chaotic drug users: Addicts Anonymous. The treatments in the facility along with Addicts Anonymous were viewed as the cure for chaotic drug use. The role of the research in the Narcotic Farm led to the discovery of methadone as a front-line treatment for opioid use, a net positive, but the use of incarcerated people — whether one admits they are incarcerated or not — as involuntary guinea pigs for medication is abhorrent.

While it’s doubtful the Riverview Wellness Village will be used to experiment on people, it is an experiment in another way: Officials are attempting to see if they can — without admitting it — imprison people into giving up drug use. While little is known about the medication-assisted treatment aspect of its program, the past approaches that the Kensington Caucus have engaged in when it comes to treatment have attacked — not supported — the role of medication-assisted treatment.

The Kensington Caucus has spearheaded NIMBY campaigns against treatment centers that approached it from the medication-assisted treatment angle and actively propagandized against them. Even if the facility provides medication- assisted treatment, it’s highly possible that the staff may use the disproven medication naltrexone. It’s also possible that the length of time a person may be on it will be limited.

While we cannot judge it without seeing it, only someone naïve would think that their previous words, actions and beliefs wouldn’t come into play in such a controversial plan.

The mayor and her henchmen must be held accountable for their role in worsening the “War on Drugs” in Philadelphia and more specifically, the War on Drug Users. Their attacks on Savage Sisters and Prevention Point Philadelphia have shown that they have no interest in doing what is best for chaotic drug users, only what is best for NIMBYs, real estate developers, and other forces interested in erasing drug users from certain areas of Philadelphia.

We — people who have chaotic relationships to drugs, people whose loved ones have chaotic relationships to drugs and progressives — must do what we can to pressure the mayor into finding another way to approach the drug problem. While we admit there is a drug problem, government officials – local, state and federal– have shown that they do not know, or do not care, about what is best for us.  Call the mayor at 215-686-2181 to oppose the plan and oppose the attacks on drug users! 

Princess Harmony

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Princess Harmony

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