October 12, 2023


The tragedy of Philadelphia’s jails
Today the Prison Society publishes the findings from our 11th walkthrough of the Philadelphia jails since 2021.

Today the Prison Society publishes the findings from our 11th walkthrough of the Philadelphia jails since 2021. These findings are just as troubling as what we found on the 10 prior walkthroughs. Among the stories we heard: 

A man reported using a sock to bandage a gunshot wound he came into jail with while he waited weeks for medical care.

A man with a heart condition said that his cellmate had to kick the cell door during an emergency to get the attention of staff, who are often nowhere to be seen.

A man in solitary confinement reported not being let out of his cell at all for weeks at a time.

Philadelphia appears no closer to resolving the unsafe and inhumane conditions than it was two years ago.

Trapped in cells without supervision

Prison Society staff and volunteers completed a walkthrough of the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on August 22, interviewing 45 incarcerated men. Once again, we found the same issues that we have brought to the city's attention for the last two years. Three-quarters of the men reported that they don’t get out of their cells on a daily basis. In restricted housing (solitary confinement), every person we spoke with reported going days at a time without being let out of their cell. 

Incarcerated people reported that staff are frequently absent from housing units, especially on nights and weekends, and do not respond to in-cell buzzers. During medical emergencies, they often have no way to get the attention of corrections officers.

“I had episodes in here and there’s no response,” said a man with a heart condition who uses a wheelchair.

Other recurring issues the incarcerated men reported include rodent infestations, a lack of in-cell activities, and not getting enough to eat. While it is helpful that the Department of Prisons agreed to shorten the gap between dinner and breakfast to address hunger between meals, incarcerated men report that meal portions are too small.

The city blames staffing shortage

In her response to the Prison Society’s memo detailing the findings of the walkthrough, Philadelphia Department of Prisons commissioner Blanche Carney blamed a shortage of corrections officers for many of the problems. She acknowledged that incarcerated people were not getting enough out-of-cell time, but said, “We are allowing as much out of cell time as possible with our current staffing complement.” Regarding reports that staff are absent from housing units, however, she claimed that at least one officer is assigned to each housing unit at all times.

“The facilities are working diligently to ensure that housing units are covered, including nights and weekends,” Carney said.

The commissioner also admitted to delays in providing medical care. On this issue as well, she said that staffing shortages were responsible for the backlog.

Carney said that the department had increased corrections officer salaries and made a stronger push to recruit new employees. As of March, an independent monitor appointed by a court to oversee the class-action settlement found there was a 42 percent vacancy rate for security staff. The independent monitor’s next report should reveal whether these hiring efforts have made a difference.

The commissioner also noted that the staffing shortages were exacerbated by an increasing jail population and delays in court hearings for incarcerated people awaiting trial. Addressing this issue, she said, “requires the collective action of the Philadelphia criminal justice partners.”

The memo detailing the Prison Society’s walkthrough findings and Carney’s response can be read in their entirety here.

Sky Blue Heart
If you learned something from this supporter update, pay it forward with a donation. Your support makes our critical work to promote transparency and accountability in Pennsylvania prisons and jails possible.