June 27, 2024


Conditions deteriorate in Philadelphia jail
Three years since we started documenting the crisis in Philadelphia jails, conditions are getting worse.

Three years since we started documenting the crisis in Philadelphia jails, conditions are getting worse.

On our latest walkthrough of the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center (PICC), we witnessed men screaming for attention in a unit where cells and corridors were covered with half an inch of standing water. Incarcerated people reported being locked in their cells for more than a week, not even being allowed out to shower.

Chaos in the RHU

Prison Society staff and volunteers conducted a walkthrough of PICC on May 16, interviewing 35 incarcerated people across three housing units. 

The worst conditions were seen in the RHU, or solitary confinement wing. The corridor leading to cells on both floors of the unit was covered in water, and incarcerated men screamed to get our attention. Trash and food waste littered the unit, and the smell of synthetic marijuana was in the air.

Lengthy lockdowns and neglect 

Men reported spending even less time outside their cells than on previous walkthroughs. In all three housing units, incarcerated people said they had been confined to their cells for over a week without access to phones, showers, programming, or other basic activities. 

In addition, incarcerated people reported a lack of staff supervision as the Philadelphia Department of Prisons continues to experience a chronic staffing shortage. Most said that staff are not present on nights and weekends. The call buttons in their cells do not work, making it nearly impossible to communicate with guards during these times. One man we interviewed said:

“We have to bang on our doors to get attention. It is an extremely stressful environment. Guys lose their minds.”

Deteriorating facilities

The aging jail facilities in PICC also appeared to be poorly maintained. In addition to the flooding, we saw rust, peeling paint, broken lights, and cement corrosion throughout the facility, and mold, exposed wiring, and running water in the showers of every unit visited. A section of the RHU containing 20 occupied cells had no functioning lights.

Not getting enough to eat

Like the women we spoke with during our previous walkthrough of PICC, all of the men we interviewed about the food in jail said they did not get enough to eat.

“This would be enough (food) for me in middle school,” said a man in the RHU.

“It’s only sufficient to keep us alive,” said another in a general population unit.

They also reported long gaps between meals. We called attention to this issue after a previous walkthrough last year, and then-Commissioner Blanche Carney agreed to serve dinner at 5 p.m. and breakfast at 6 a.m. However, incarcerated people said that dinner was served at 4:30 p.m., with no other food provided until 6:30 a.m. breakfast the next day.

The city’s response

Since our previous walkthrough, the city has taken new steps to address the jail crisis. Mayor Cherelle Parker’s administration agreed to raise corrections officer salaries 4.5% and offer retention and signing bonuses as an incentive to boost staffing amid a 45% shortage. In his response to our walkthrough, new prisons commissioner Michael Resnick noted that the jails just graduated 20 new cadets, and were training a new class of 35 at the academy. This is progress. 

In addition to hiring more officers, the city will also need to reduce the jail population. To this end, the commissioner indicated that the jails were engaging with the courts and criminal justice partners to process cases more quickly and release people from custody in a timely manner.

Regarding the chaos in the RHU, Resnick stated that incarcerated people “were still becoming acclimated” to the unit after recently being relocated, and that incarcerated people were upset over rules being “reinforced.” He also claimed that the jail is providing the required amount of out-of-cell time, despite overwhelming reports to the contrary.

Addressing concerns about the facilities, Resnick provided a long list of renovations and repairs completed this year, and said that maintenance issues are documented and addressed daily. He did not address concerns about food service or meal schedules but instead pointed to the nutrition guidelines the jail is supposed to follow. 

At the same time, Resnick asked for patience. “The issues raised cannot be resolved immediately,” he wrote.

The Prison Society’s executive director, Claire Shubik-Richards, agreed. “A crisis of this size cannot be resolved quickly,” she said. "But denying or dismissing the significance of entrenched problems won’t make them go away.” 

We look forward to continuing to partner with Commissioner Resnick in the sustained work of resolving the crisis.

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