The Prison Society’s latest walkthrough of Philadelphia prisons found that the city’s increasing number of incarcerated women face dangerous conditions that continue to threaten the health and safety of people in its jails. Among a host of other problems, the women told us they’re confined to their cells for days at a time and haven’t been outdoors in months, that staff tolerate—and some even instigate—frequent violent incidents, and that they’re denied an adequate supply of menstrual pads.
We shared our findings in a memo sent to the Philadelphia Department of Prisons at the end of September. It details many of the same issues in our previous walkthrough in May, showing the city’s failure to address this humanitarian crisis continues to put lives at risk. Since we reported those findings to the PDP, another five people in PDP custody have died, making a total of 9 deaths so far this year.
Staff shortages contribute to a range of problems
We interviewed 52 incarcerated women during our August 16 walkthrough of three Philadelphia jail facilities. More than two-thirds of them said that correctional staff are nowhere to be found on evenings and weekends. They reported difficulties reaching staff during emergencies, including one incident where no one responded to calls for help when a woman suffered a seizure at night.
The women said the PDP’s struggles to fully staff its facilities contributed to a number of other issues. They reported that they couldn’t access the law library due to staffing shortages. More than three quarters reported insufficient access to in-person family visits, saying that there weren’t enough staff to facilitate the visits. They also received conflicting messages about visiting rules for children. According to the department’s website, six months is the minimum age for visiting children. But one woman with small children said her family was sent home after they arrived for a visit and were told that children under five years old were not allowed.
We also heard reports of unprofessional and abusive behavior by staff. One quarter of the women had witnessed an assault by a staff member, while others reported threats, intimidation, and vulgar name-calling. “The guards pay inmates to beat us up,” one woman said. Another said that corrections officers “stand by and laugh” when fights break out. More than half of the women we asked said they didn’t feel safe in the jail.
More than two-thirds of women we asked reported delays accessing counseling and medical care, concerns that we have heard time and time again on previous walkthroughs. Many said that it takes multiple months to be seen after requesting an appointment.
The jail did show some improvement in out-of-cell time since our previous walkthrough. Many women in general population units reported getting out of their cells for multiple hours every day. However, women in restricted housing (solitary confinement) said they were still kept confined to their cells for days at a time. Once again, we also heard from many that there is a complete lack of access to activities to do while they're locked in their cells. In addition, nearly everyone we asked about access to the outdoors said they had not been outside for more than a month, and some reported going several months without getting any fresh air.
The city’s response
Since we completed the walkthrough, all of the women in PDP custody have been relocated to one jail facility, the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center (PICC). But since the Prison Society has found similar issues during past visits to PICC and other facilities, it’s likely the women continue to encounter many of the same problems.
In general, PDP commissioner Blanche Carney was more receptive to the concerns we raised than she has been to feedback from previous Prison Society walkthroughs. Carney acknowledged the reports of inappropriate behavior by staff and said the department was investigating the allegations. She did not deny the reports of absent corrections officers, but instead wrote that the department is “working to ensure supervisory coverage” and “strategically assigning staff within our facilities.” Carney detailed efforts by the city to hire more staff. Unfortunately, these efforts have not been adequate, as the department’s staffing deficit continues to grow.
Carney asserted that the relocation to PICC “should alleviate” many other problems, including lack of access to the law library. She said that more daily visiting slots were opened up following the move, increasing access to family visits. Thanks to our feedback, the department also cleared up the discrepancy about age requirements so that all children over six months will be able to visit.
On some issues, however, Carney made claims that were flatly contradicted by the experience of incarcerated women. Regarding the delays for medical visits, she claimed that “the majority of the incarcerated population is receiving timely care.” Contrary to what the women told us, she also said the jails provide an “ample supply of feminine hygiene products.”
While we welcome the more constructive tone of Commissioner Carney’s response, it will take more than words to resolve this crisis. The city must respond with the urgent action the situation demands.
The full memo detailing the findings of our August walkthrough and our recommendations for addressing each issue is available here, along with the city’s response letter.