A 37-year-old man hospitalized after being stabbed in the back four times. A 23-year-old stabbed in a dining area and hospitalized in critical condition. A 33-year-old incarcerated man killed by a stab wound to the chest. These are all acts of violence in the Philadelphia jails that have made headlines in the last two months alone.
People confined to the city’s jails are still subjected to dangerous and degrading conditions, just as they were when the Prison Society conducted our first post-pandemic walkthrough nearly two-years ago. In our most recent walkthrough of the Philadelphia Detention Center, incarcerated people told us that they are confined in small dormitories for entire days, haven’t had outdoor recreation in months, aren’t getting enough to eat, and that delays in medical care continue to compromise their health.
Familiar stories of neglect
Prison Society staff and volunteers visited three housing units and interviewed 48 incarcerated men in the Detention Center on January 18. In this 1960's-era facility, people are cramped in group dormitories. In one of the dorms, multiple men recounted an incident where another incarcerated person suffered a seizure while the corrections officer assigned to the unit was absent on a “lunch break.” They said they shouted for attention for over a half hour before staff responded to the medical emergency.
We have heard many similar stories on previous walkthroughs as the staffing crisis in the jails has grown. Vacancy rate for security staff now exceeds 40 percent, with over 800 positions unfilled.
Other serious problems persist
The men we interviewed haven’t had outdoor recreation time in months. Officials told us during our visit that the jail has a policy of not letting incarcerated people outside during the winter and summer because they don’t have the ability to let people who become uncomfortable in hot or cold weather back inside. The only people who reported getting any time outside in the past week were five people participating in a dog training program who were allowed outside for five to 10 minutes at a time to walk the animals.
More than three-quarters of the men we spoke with said the jail is not giving them enough to eat. They complained of small portions and being served meals like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day. Several mentioned that dinner is served at 4:00 p.m., resulting in a 15-hour stretch of fasting until breakfast is served the next day.
There also continue to be long waits to receive medical care in the jail. More than half of the men we spoke with who had tried to access care said they waited over a week to be seen.
In addition, we observed ongoing maintenance issues in the jail, including mold, rust, peeling paint, discarded clothing items, and broken lights.
Though the most serious problems in the Philadelphia jails persist, we did find some relatively small improvements. Unlike on previous walkthroughs, the men reported getting clean laundry at least once a week. Commissary orders are also being delivered more quickly and refunds are more promptly issued for undelivered orders than they were in the past.
The city’s response
In her response to our memo detailing these findings, Philadelphia Department of Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney acknowledged that the jail was falling short in some areas. Carney admitted that daily recreation time was not being provided, “despite continuous efforts to improve.” She acknowledged “backlogs” in medical care, and expressed an interest in investigating the slow response to the person suffering a seizure, a claim that corrections officers were falsifying recreation logs, and accounts of housing units going unsupervised. Regarding reports of incarcerated people going hungry, Carney said the department follows USDA dietary guidelines, and “we strive to ensure that meals are always served on schedule.”
Despite Carney’s acknowledgement of these issues, the city has yet to take decisive action to address the jails' serious problems. It has been over a year since the city contracted with former Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel to help end the jail crisis, and officials have still not provided an update on his work. The Prison Society once again calls on the city to make public Wetzel's findings and recommendations. As this crisis enters its third year, we will continue to conduct regular walkthroughs of the jails and call attention to inhumane conditions that jeopardize the health and safety of incarcerated people.
You can read the Prison Society’s full memo and Commissioner Carney’s response here.