Three unions that represent thousands of workers at Philadelphia jails have taken the unusual step of calling for judges to reduce the jail population during the coronavirus pandemic.
The unions — which in total represent about 2,500 corrections officers, subcontracted health-care workers, and social workers — say that releasing incarcerated people from jail is a “common sense” measure to help protect workers and the broader community from the coronavirus.
They join a chorus of voices, including criminal-justice reform and public-health advocates, as well as District Attorney Larry Krasner and Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey, in making the same plea.
Around the country, unions in Chicago and California have also advocated for reducing jail populations. National Nurses United and SEIU Local 73, which represent 600 workers in the Cook County jail, called for officials to “drastically reduce” the jail population. The Cook County jail has become one of the country’s hot spots for virus transmission, the New York Times reported earlier this month.
In Philadelphia, judges have lowered the jail population by 17% this month, releasing certain nonviolent detainees and those being held on low-level charges or cash bail. But advocates say these efforts don’t go far enough. The city’s typical jail population is 4,600 across four facilities.
As of Monday, 126 inmates had tested positive for the virus, the city said, and 56 were ill and remained incarcerated. A 48-year-old woman who died last week was the Philadelphia jails’ first coronavirus death. As of last Thursday, 60 corrections officers had tested positive, according to Eric Hill, an official with District Council 33 Local 159, which represents 1,900 officers.
The unions’ calls for reducing the jail population is surprising because unions traditionally want to increase the amount of work in their sectors, said Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University.
“To take a moral position that doesn’t increase the demand for your members’ work is actually quite significant,” she said.
It’s happening now, she said, because workers inside prisons and incarcerated people have a common interest — avoiding the spread of coronavirus — which isn’t often the case.
Hill, whose members have said the city isn’t doing enough to protect them on the job, said it was up to the courts to decide whom to release, but that his union supported anything that would help reduce the infection rate.
“We’re in a pandemic situation,” he said. “It’s a life-or-death situation. ... It only makes sense that in a place where people are packed together, we try to reduce that."
Chris Woods, president of District 1199C, the union that represents health-care workers at Philadelphia jails, was more emphatic.
In a letter to three top Philadelphia judges sent April 9, Woods said he supported the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania in calling for the release of incarcerated people over 60, all pregnant women, and those who have a serious medical condition and are at a higher risk for complications from the virus.
“These common-sense measures would permit people accused of crimes, sentenced to short sentences, and held on violations of probation and parole to not be exposed to a potential death sentence for their wrongdoing, while protecting the community, and our members," he wrote.
In an interview Tuesday, Woods said there were positive cases among his members at city jails, but he wasn’t sure how many. His union represents 500 subcontracted nurses, physician assistants, and other health-care workers at the jails.
Cathy Scott, president of District Council 47, also said her union supported reducing the jail population — and has long done so. DC47 represents about 100 workers at the jails, mostly social workers.
“We have for a long time believed that too many people are in jail because they’re poor and they can’t afford the minimal cash bail,” said Scott, a former prison social worker.
SEIU Local 668, which represents workers at state prisons, declined to comment.