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As the coronavirus gains strength in Philly’s jails, panic and fingerpointing mark efforts to avert crisis by thinning inmate population

Though stakeholders have reached an agreement to potentially release hundreds of low-level offenders from the city's jails as the coronavirus spreads behind bars, fingerpointing and acrimony marked the negotiations. Meanwhile, 31 inmates are now infected.

Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia on November 11, 2014.
Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia on November 11, 2014.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

The push to potentially release thousands of inmates from Pennsylvania’s county jails accelerated Friday as the coronavirus further entrenched itself in detention centers across the state and sparked concern, especially in Philadelphia, of a widespread outbreak behind bars.

In response to a lawsuit from the ACLU, the state Supreme Court ordered president judges in every county to begin monitoring efforts to protect prisoners in their jails. If the facilities can’t comply with recommended hygiene and social distancing guidelines, county courts should set up a process to consider certain low-level offenders, pre-trial detainees, and inmates facing the highest risks from infection for potential release, the justices said.

But despite reaching an unrelated accord with Philadelphia’s judges on one such protocol Friday, District Attorney Larry Krasner and the city’s chief public defender, Keir Bradford-Grey, expressed frustration that even that process, set to begin next week, won’t thin the jail population fast enough to avert a crisis.

“We really need the courts to be more open to considering the direness of the situation,” said Bradford-Grey. “The prison positive tests are growing rapidly day by day. There is no way to social distance in jails and [those numbers are] going to continue to rise. We can’t wait until next Tuesday.”

Krasner added: “We want now, and we have wanted all along, to move efficiently with the First Judicial District and all the other stakeholders to make progress.… Sometimes progress in Philly takes a little longer than it should.”

Their comments came just hours after the president judges of Philadelphia’s Municipal and Common Pleas Courts outlined the agreement they had cemented with Krasner’s and Bradford-Grey’s offices to expedite inmate release reviews.

Starting Tuesday, four courtrooms will be devoted three days a week to considering broad lists of cases on which prosecutors and public defenders can agree. With the Stout Center for Criminal Justice closed for all but emergency hearings, the proceedings will take place over the phone.

Prisoners convicted of economic crimes, those who have already completed their minimum sentence, and cases in which bail is less than $25,000 and the inmate has no prior record of violent crime, gun, drug or sex offenses will be fast-tracked. Those criteria could expand as the process moves forward, court officials said.

The protocol would not be used to evaluate juvenile cases, which have been undergoing their own process since March 13. It has led to the release of 20 young people from the city’s juvenile detention center.

But in a statement accompanying the news, Municipal Court President Judge Patrick Dugan said if anyone was to blame for delays in the process so far, it was Krasner’s office.

“For weeks the courts have sought from the District Attorney’s Office an agreed-upon list of individuals whose cases were deemed sufficiently appropriate for review and possible release, as well as an agreed-upon method and criteria by which to conduct the reviews,” he said, adding that the courts have still not received those lists.

Krasner said prosecutors supplied lists of 1,197 candidates for likely release some time ago. That claim drew another retort from the courts.

“With all due respect, the courts have been waiting some three weeks for the DA’s Office to provide a list of specific individuals to review and determine if immediate release is warranted," said Gabe Roberts, spokesperson for the First Judicial District. "It should be noted that at any point during these past three weeks, if the court had received such a list, it would have started a review process immediately.”

That level of finger-pointing has characterized much of the discussion surrounding what stakeholders have described as a public health emergency unfolding behind bars, according to participants on all sides of the negotiations.

Advocates have been warning for weeks that the nation’s detention centers — with their cramped conditions, shared cells, limited hygiene, and inability to follow recommended social distancing guidelines — threaten to become a tinderbox for transmission that could put inmates, corrections officers, and the surrounding community at risk.

In New York City, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, more than 450 inmates and guards at Rikers Island have tested positive for the virus — an infection rate more than seven times the general population’s.

And as of Friday, 31 prisoners in Philadelphia’s jails and an unspecified number of guards had fallen ill with the COVID-19 disease, city officials said — a rate of infection that outpaces the city’s more than four times over. A week ago, only one inmate and one guard had tested positive for the virus.

Philadelphia’s judges, prosecutors and public defenders began discussing a process to review the cases of low-level offenders and those most at risk from an infection at the beginning of March — well before the state Supreme Court closed all courthouses to the public in a bid to prevent them from becoming vectors for the disease.

And yet, it was only last week that the three parties reached a vaguely outlined agreement to begin reviewing cases for potentially releasable inmates.

Thus far, the District Attorney’s Office and the Defender Association have submitted to the courts more than 300 motions seeking the release of low-level offenders, including some held on technical probation violations such as missing a meeting with their probation officer. Many others have already completed their minimum jail sentence and would have been eligible for parole hearings if the court were open.

But they have had to do so through a time-consuming, case-by-case process instead of submitting a broad list of potentially releasable candidates for the court’s review, said Bradford-Grey.

As of Friday, the population of the Philadelphia jails was only about 7% lower than two weeks earlier. Surrounding jails like those in Bucks and Delaware Counties have shaved their inmate counts by 20% and 35% percent respectively through a similar process of review, according to statistics provided by the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

“These are people that would be out if the courts were functional,” Bradford-Grey said. “If some people don’t get out of that prison soon, they’re not going to be able to come out because they are in quarantine.”

Meanwhile, the tension level within quarantine blocks in the city’s jails boiled over Friday afternoon.

Just after 2 p.m., nine quarantined inmates at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center on State Road began throwing commissary containers at the windows of their cells in an effort to break the glass, according to two corrections officers who were not authorized to discuss the incident publicly.

Guards in riot gear and using pepper spray were called to extract those causing the disturbance, the officers said. No inmates or staff were injured, city officials said.

Managing Director Brian Abernathy said the jails have adopted new measures to address both security and health concerns. Inmates have now been provided with masks and are being kept “sheltered in place” in their cells, allowed out only to shower and use the phones.

“We know advocates for all of those housed in congregate settings are worried, but the fact is we are going to great lengths to keep everyone safe,” he said. “Participants and staff alike.”

Staff writers Laura McCrystal, Lisa Gartner, Barbara Laker, and Samantha Melamed contributed to this article.