The escape of two incarcerated men from a Philadelphia jail last month illustrated how safety inside prisons is critical for safety in the community. The Prison Society brought this message to Philadelphia City Council this week, where we were invited to give testimony in a hearing that sought answers to how a man charged in four homicides could break out of jail for 19 hours before anyone noticed.
“The recent escapes from State Road are only the most publicly visible sign of the crises at the Philadelphia prisons,” said Noah Barth, the Prison Society’s director of prison monitoring.
A severe shortage of corrections officers combined with the jail’s mismanagement have been endangering incarcerated people and staff since long before the jailbreak. “The most important stakeholder on this issue cannot be here today–the individuals incarcerated in our city’s prisons,” Noah’s testimony continued.
The Prison Society helped project the missing voice of incarcerated people before members of City Council, sharing findings from a walkthrough of a Philadelphia jail that took place two weeks after the escape. While the capture of the two men averted further danger in the community, the public safety crisis continues behind bars.
Walkthrough finds familiar problems
The Prison Society’s walkthrough of Riverside Correctional Facility (RCF) on May 18 found many of the same issues we encountered on our nine previous walkthroughs since June 2021. Incarcerated people are still being confined to their cells for entire days without staff supervision. Half of the people we spoke with said they’re not let out of their cell at all on some days. They reported that the entire facility was on lockdown for three days after the escape, despite being totally separate from the one where the breach occurred.
Staff are still not responding to in-cell buzzers that are used to call them in an emergency, according to 80 percent of the incarcerated people we interviewed. We heard about this issue in our first walkthrough of RCF in September 2021, when multiple incarcerated people reported that a man suffered a seizure for hours without receiving aid because they couldn’t get the attention of staff.
Over 20 percent reported that the jail doesn’t provide enough to eat. Like other Philadelphia jails, RCF serves no meals between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m., causing many to go hungry during this 16-hour gap or purchase supplementary food from the commissary. One man reported that the day after the jailbreak, he was not served any hot food and was told by staff, “People broke out of jail so we gotta suffer for it.”
To the jails’ credit, we did find relative improvement in a couple of areas. Incarcerated people have reported fewer problems with receiving commissary orders or refunds when products aren’t available. They also reported greater access to showers and hygiene products. These improvements, while marginal, show that the jails are capable of making progress.
The full memo we sent to the Philadelphia Department of Prisons detailing our findings is available here. We gave the department over two weeks to respond before we shared our findings publicly, but we have not yet received a response. The city’s response will be appended to our memo when it becomes available.
The Prison Society applauds Philadelphia City Council for seeking to shed more light on the unsafe and inhumane conditions in the city’s jails. This week’s hearing was a small but important step toward the greater accountability and transparency that is necessary for change.