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Philadelphia City Hall on Oct. 15, 2022.

Credit: Alex Baxter

In 2021, Philadelphia’s district attorney Larry Krasner, caught flak for his statements about the city’s crime spike. “We don’t have an issue of lawlessness,” Krasner said. “We don’t have a crisis of crime. We don’t have a crisis of violence.” The statement came in the midst of a record year for homicides in Philadelphia, a number that has skyrocketed in virtually all major American cities since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Krasner was swiftly accused of downplaying the collective experience of individuals who have lost loved ones to violence. In an op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer, former Philadelphia mayor Michael A. Nutter called Krasner’s words, “some of the worst, most ignorant, and most insulting comments I have ever heard spoken by an elected official.” 

Following public backlash, the D.A. released a statement, admitting his words were “inarticulate,” and that Krasner had intended to say that overall crime in Philadelphia was declining, even though homicides and gun violence had increased.

Despite Krasner’s retraction, Nutter appeared on the Michael Smerconish show to admonish the district attorney’s leadership and his “soft-on-crime” approach. In response to a social media post that criticized Nutter for unfairly blaming the D.A. for Philadelphia’s crime problem, Nutter said, “I'd say that your job, as a district attorney, is to prosecute people who commit crimes. There are any number of systems that have their issues. What I'm asking, in Philly at least, is that the D.A. prosecute people.”

Policing, prosecution, and incarceration have indeed changed dramatically in Philadelphia since Krasner assumed office. In the last five years, the D.A. has shifted resources away from prosecuting low-level offenses, reduced the use of cash-bail for petty crimes, instated a conviction integrity unit to monitor cases where there may have been a wrongful conviction, and created a database to review allegations of police misconduct. Under Krasner’s leadership, Philadelphia's prison population has plummeted, falling from 6,604 in May 2017 to 4,417 in February 2023.

As a result of his work to tackle mass imprisonment and combat prejudice within the criminal justice system, Krasner has garnered a large base of Black and Brown supporters. Still, some Philadelphians argue that the district attorney's office is not aggressive enough when it comes to prosecuting certain crimes.

Living within the boundaries of Penn’s campus — more often than not called the “Penn Bubble” — it is easy to forget the realities that hound this city just beyond college walk. While the university is often encouraged to deepen its relationship with the surrounding community, we as students also have a civic obligation to Philadelphia. Your Penn experience is not complete until you’ve educated yourself on the issues that plague this city. Your education is not complete until you’ve fulfilled your responsibility to better the lives of those around you. One issue that students should concern themselves with is mass incarceration.

Whether or not you agree with Krasner’s approach to the problem of mass imprisonment, you cannot, in good faith, argue that Philadelphia’s penal system is not uncharacteristically punitive. Of all the major U.S. cities, Philadelphia has the highest incarceration rate per capita.

Solitary confinement was actually invented here. In 1787, the Quaker-aligned Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Misery of Public Prisons came to the conclusion that hardened criminals could find salvation if they were kept apart from negative influences — other inmates. This form of incarceration came to be known as the Pennsylvania System, a model that was soon adopted by the rest of the country.

By the mid-20th century, Philadelphia's prison population steadily increased, and the conditions of the jails deteriorated.

In 1970, inmates at the overcrowded Holmesburg prison rioted after being forcefully subjected to inhumane dermatology experiments, led by Dr. Albert M. Kligman, a researcher here at the University of Pennsylvania. In a 1966 interview with Press, Kligman famously recounted his experience entering the congested Holmesburg prison for the first time: “All I saw before me were acres of skin. It was like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time.”

In 2022, the city finally apologized to the victims of the Holmesburg prison experiments. Even so, inmate living conditions haven't improved significantly since the riots. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, penitentiary conditions worsened as the demand for resources grew. Due to the filthy, unclean conditions of Philadelphia’s prisons, the city has been involved in multiple class action lawsuits since 2020.

Equally disturbing to the overcrowded, decrepit state of Philadelphia prisons is the fact that private corporations earn billions annually from mass imprisonment. One of the corporations profiting from the prison-industrial system is Aramark. Based in Center City, Aramark is the largest provider of food services to U.S. prisons, and has a financial incentive to maintain high incarceration rates. The corporation was linked to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a team of lawmakers and business leaders famous for drafting "Truth in Sentencing” legislation and mandatory minimum sentences — laws that contribute to the growth of the American prison population.

While Aramark likes to brag about its economic contributions to Philadelphia as one of the city's largest employers, informed constituents recognize that this marginal economic growth comes at the expense of freedom for marginalized people. Some Philadelphians have begun rejecting private prison profiteering by protesting peacefully at the corporation’s headquarters, and refusing to purchase food at sports venues that subcontract the company’s catering services.

Ultimately, recognizing our influence and giving back to the greater community is a crucial part of our Penn experience. As students and beneficiaries of Philadelphia, we have a civic duty to make the city a better place than when we arrived. Through a number of organizations, including the Pennsylvania Prison Society, Vera Institute project, and ACLU Pennsylvania, Penn students can become active members in the fight for prison reform and rehabilitation. 

JULU NWAEZEAPU is a College sophomore studying behavioral and computational neuroscience from Chicago. Her email is