July 1, 2021

Responding to the crisis in Philadelphia’s jails
Over the past few months, we’ve been shining a light on the crisis in Philadelphia’s jails.

Over the past few months, we’ve been shining a light on the crisis in Philadelphia’s jails. Now, we are heartened to see city leaders calling for action to end the violence, neglect, and extreme isolation the Prison Society has heard about and observed directly in the city’s prisons.

On Tuesday, we stood with Philadelphia City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, members of City Council, and representatives of the local corrections officers’ union to demand that the city take immediate action to address these unsafe and inhumane conditions.

Just since August of last year, five incarcerated people have been murdered inside Philadelphia’s jails--more people than during the previous eight years combined. This violence is the most serious consequence of highly restrictive lockdowns throughout the pandemic, a severe staff shortage that has left housing units unsupervised for hours at a time, and a rising jail population that has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. This crisis requires Philadelphia officials to begin the sustained work required to bring staffing up to appropriate levels and reduce the number of people in jail.

But there are also other immediate actions that Philadelphia prison officials can take to address harmful conditions. For starters, they can safely reopen the prisons for family visits, provide activities for incarcerated people to do in their cells, and ensure they are provided with basic hygienic necessities that many now lack.

The Prison Society investigated a deluge of complaints

The Prison Society requested a walkthrough of Philadelphia’s jails after receiving an alarming surge of complaints in March and April, concerning issues such as a lack of out-of-cell time, ignored requests for medical care, and rodent-infested cells. Initially the city declined, but granted our second request when more complaints inundated our office in May. On June 3rd, we visited the facility that generated the most complaints and met with multiple incarcerated people.

The visit confirmed the desperate concerns incarcerated people and their loved ones have been voicing for months. In housing pod after housing pod, men were locked in their cells with no corrections officers present. People we interviewed reported still being confined for up to 23 hours a day without books or activities to pass the time. Among other deeply troubling concerns, they also said that the competition for the limited number of phones and tablets to call home was raising tensions between incarcerated people.

Hiring more staff is just part of the solution

We brought our concerns about the prisons to city officials, including Controller Rhynhart, who decided to speak out publicly on the issue after speaking with the Prison Society and touring the prisons herself. On Tuesday, Rhynhart presented data showing a steep decline in staffing levels over the past two years, and called on city government to hire more than 300 new corrections officers to fill vacant posts. This is indeed a necessary step to address the low staffing levels that have intensified lockdowns and allowed violence to go unchecked.

But the city must also work to turn back the tide of its rising jail population, which has exacerbated the shortages in what the Philadelphia prisons commissioner herself has called a “perfect storm.” After reducing the number of people in custody by 22% at the beginning of the pandemic, the jails have refilled again to hold about 4,600--nearly as many as were incarcerated before COVID-19. This is largely due to a massive backlog of cases in the criminal court system that built up over the past year when proceedings slowed almost to a halt.

The Prison Society calls on all Philadelphia officials to work with the justice system to safely reduce the number of people in jail.

In addition, the Prison Society once again calls on all state and county officials to:

  • Expand efforts to safely reduce the number of people in custody;
  • Continue to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to all people in custody and staff in prisons and jails;
  • Implement weekly, rapid testing of all staff that come into contact with people in custody until they are vaccinated;    
  • Require that every county publicly report prison testing results and virus-related deaths in custody;
  • Test and quarantine every new person entering custody; and
  • Eliminate the medical co-pay for accessing health care while in custody.

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