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Philly jails still aren’t doing enough to stop coronavirus spread, ACLU says in new suit

Some inmates allegedly have been denied access to soap for days. Others who show symptoms of the disease have lingered among the population before being quarantined. And inmates who have fallen ill are being returned without testing.

The Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center.
The Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Efforts by the Philadelphia Department of Prisons to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus in the city’s jails have not gone far enough and in some cases are violating constitutional rights, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said Monday in a lawsuit filed on behalf of 10 inmates.

The suit, filed in federal court in Philadelphia, alleges that some inmates have been denied access to soap for days at a time, that others who show symptoms of the disease have lingered among the general population before being quarantined, and that inmates who have fallen ill are being returned without testing to see whether they are still contagious.

And while corrections officers have attempted to curb transmission by implementing a “shelter in place” policy that confines all inmates to their cells except for showers and phone calls, prisoners have not consistently been granted those opportunities, leaving some confined for days at a time in a state similar to solitary confinement, the ACLU said.

The result, said Amanda Skinner, wife of one of the inmates on whose behalf the suit was filed, has left the jail’s population unsure of the risk they are facing and lacking the means to protect themselves.

“He’s scared,” Skinner, of Port Richmond, said of her husband, Joseph, who has been held at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility since July on drug and conspiracy charges and a probation detainer. He suffers from asthma that has led to multiple hospitalizations.

“This would be a death sentence with his medical condition,” Skinner said.

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The lawsuit comes as the outbreak in Philadelphia’s four jails continues to spread, despite lockdown measures being implemented nearly a month ago, and efforts to release certain nonviolent detainees and those being held on low-level charges or minimal cash bail that have reduced the jail population by roughly 17%.

As of Monday, city officials reported that 126 inmates had tested positive for the disease, and that 56 of them are ill and remain incarcerated. The jails reported their first death last week — a 48-year-old woman who had been held since September 2018 on robbery and other charges.

Though the city has not released information on the spread of the virus among corrections officers — citing privacy issues — officials with the officers’ union have said at least 43 guards have also tested positive, raising concern that the outbreak behind bars could spread to the wider community.

Public health advocates warn that prisons are especially vulnerable to outbreaks due to their cramped quarters, lack of proper hygiene, and inability to implement recommended social distancing guidelines. The coronavirus transmission rates in the Cook County Jail in Chicago, New York City’s Rikers Island prison, and an Ohio state prison near Columbus are among the highest in the world, the New York Times has reported.

A city spokesperson declined to comment on the ACLU lawsuit Monday, saying officials were still reviewing it.

In addition to the “shelter in place” policy, the jails have banned most visitors and issued cloth masks to inmates and corrections officers. But inmates and guards have complained that they are asked to reuse those masks over multiple days, in contradiction to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania has been active in a number of lawsuits over the last month seeking the release of people incarcerated in county jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers. The Public Interest Law Center filed a similar suit on behalf of three inmates at the federal detention center in Philadelphia last week.

In its suit filed Monday, the ACLU urges the court to demand more stringent mitigation efforts in the Philadelphia jails, to appoint a medical officer to oversee their implementation, and, if those efforts fail, to order the release of all inmates over 55 or those with preexisting health conditions that make them more medically vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“The commonwealth has been under a public health emergency for more than a month now, and yet the city … has taken woefully inadequate steps to stop the spread in the jails,” said Reggie Shuford, the organization’s executive director. “The failure of jail administrators to act in this pandemic is both unhealthy and unlawful.”