July 14, 2022

Dangerous problems persist in Philadelphia jails
Philadelphia’s jails are still failing to address the conditions that have led to a surge in deaths, our latest walkthrough shows. The problems we saw on our first post-pandemic tour a year ago still exist, and so do the dangers that led to the deaths of 18 people in custody last year.

Dear Prison Society Supporters:

Philadelphia’s jails are still failing to address the conditions that have led to a surge in deaths, our latest walkthrough shows. The problems we saw on our first post-pandemic tour a year ago still exist, and so do the dangers that led to the deaths of 18 people in custody last year. 

During the Prison Society’s May 17 walkthrough of the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, Philadelphia’s largest jail, incarcerated people we interviewed told us that they still spent almost the entire day in their cells on housing blocks where corrections officers are scarce. They also told us about frequent assaults by staff, continuing delays in receiving counseling and medical care, a lack of books and activities to keep them occupied while stuck in their cells, inadequate supplies of soap and toilet paper, and a litany of other issues detailed in a memo we sent to the Philadelphia Department of Prisons.

Dangerous lack of supervision persists

The chronic absence of correctional staff on housing units in the Philadelphia jails over the past two years has allowed violence to go unchecked. During our recent walkthrough, nearly every incarcerated person we spoke with said that officers were absent from their housing units on evenings and weekends. They also reported that staff still weren’t responding to calls from their in-cell buzzers, including an instance in which no one responded during a medical emergency. 

This neglect and lack of supervision stems from a staffing shortage that has only grown worse in the past year. The Department of Prisons was 644 corrections officers short of a full staff as of this April. A year ago, the department was short 382 officers.

Still stuck inside cells

People in custody were still spending nearly the entire day confined to their cells. Every single one of the 25 people we interviewed during our May walkthrough reported they received less than three hours out of cell per day. Only two said they were let out of their cells daily, but it was only for 90 minutes. This is just as bad, if not worse, than what incarcerated people were telling us a year ago

The men we spoke with said that the lack of out-of-cell time led directly to fights over the use of phones, because of how little time they have to make calls. “We locked down, then come out and bum-rush the phones,” one of them told us. “That’s when the fights happen.”

The jails’ repeated failures to give people in custody a modicum of time outside their cells was highlighted in a federal class action lawsuit they brought against the city of Philadelphia during the pandemic. According to the terms of a settlement reached in the case, the city was supposed to provide a minimum of four hours out-of-cell each day by the time we conducted our May walkthrough. 

City continues to deny problems, but pledges to share outside consultant recommendations 

The PDP continues to deny the existence of many of these issues and the lived experience of people in its custody. In response to our memo detailing our findings, Commissioner Blanche Carney claimed that the jails were “consistently at or above four (4) hours of out of cell time per day.” Regarding the absence of corrections officers on evenings and weekends, she stated, “We have worked to ensure that there is an officer on every housing unit, no matter how staff challenged we may be at a given time.” Remarkably, Carney also cited the four deaths in jail so far this year as a sign that conditions were improving. Eighteen people died in Philadelphia jails last year, and our recent walkthrough makes clear that the unsafe conditions that contributed to that tragic toll persist.

While these responses were disappointing, they came with one hopeful bit of news. The PDP has agreed to our request to make public the findings of John Wetzel, the former Pennsylvania corrections secretary the city hired as a consultant last spring to help the jails get out of the ongoing crisis. We thank the department for promising to report Wetzel’s initial findings and recommendations in the “near future.”

The full memo detailing the findings of our May walkthrough and our recommendations for addressing each issue is available here, along with the city’s response letter.

The crisis in Philadelphia’s jails is the product of a shortage of correctional staff, administrative hurdles that keep people in jail longer than necessary, and ineffective management. 

The Prison Society continues to call upon the city to consider the following measures to address the crisis:

  • Utilizing national guard and/or contracted temporary staff to address critical staffing shortages, and specifically, medical staffing shortages.
  • Temporarily leasing space in other, nearby facilities with excess capacity.
  • Working with criminal legal stakeholders to address administrative inefficiencies, such as the time to probation hearings, early bail review, and transportation to state facilities; court continuances; and the delays associated with the court process for individuals who are arrested while under community supervision.

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