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Six percent of asymptomatic Philly inmates tested positive for COVID-19 as jails move to the ‘yellow’ phase

That infection rate is significantly lower than that found in other detention centers across the region. But inmate advocates say that's because city waited so long to test everyone in its custody.

Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Northeast Philadelphia.
Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Northeast Philadelphia.Read more / File Photograph

Nearly 6% of asymptomatic inmates in Philadelphia’s jails tested positive for the coronavirus during mass testing conducted over the last two weeks, city officials announced Friday, the same day they cemented a settlement in a federal class-action lawsuit guaranteeing greater protections for inmates at risk of contracting the disease.

The results announced Friday came after corrections officials reversed course last month on calls to universally test everyone in their custody — a measure used with increasing frequency at other detention facilities as the pandemic takes an especially heavy toll in corrections institutions.

It was also a measure that the 10 prisoners who sued the Philadelphia Department of Prisons in April had demanded.

Of the 3,855 prisoners tested between May 20 and earlier this week, 223 were found to be currently infected with the virus. All of them have since been placed in isolation for two weeks, though none were showing symptoms, Managing Director Brian Abernathy said in a statement.

That infection rate is significantly lower than that found in other detention centers across the region. When the Montgomery County Correctional Facility tested all its inmates in late April, it found 30 times more cases than previously detected by testing only symptomatic inmates.

In all, roughly 18% of its jail population was shown to be infected with the coronavirus but were asymptomatic though still capable of spreading the disease.

» READ MORE: Nearly half of inmates tested in Delaware County’s jail have had the coronavirus

Abernathy credited precautionary measures adopted by the Department of Prisons for keeping the city’s jail infection rate so low.

“By acting early and decisively, the Department of Prisons helped to safeguard the health of thousands of inmates,” he said. “This is the lowest infection rate that we are aware of among the prisons across the nation that have conducted universal testing.”

Lawyers representing the inmates who sued challenged that conclusion, noting that the city waited months after detecting its first inmate infection to begin testing everyone in custody. By that time, the number of ill inmates had dropped to three from a peak of 68 in late April.

And despite the relatively low overall infection rate found through the recent testing, the results varied in each of the city’s four jails.

For instance, at the Detention Center, the main intake facility for male inmates, 23% of the population tested positive — an infection rate that lawyers for prisoners attributed to the dorm-style communal housing that has made it impossible for inmates to practice social distancing.

Still, Su Ming Yeh, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, said the settlement cemented Friday in the class-action suit should ensure better conditions for an inmate population that has swelled with hundreds of arrests this week amid the ongoing demonstrations and unrest surrounding the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The settlement will require the city to provide all inmates with soap, clean towels, four face masks for personal use, and the opportunity to shower daily.

Previously, inmates had to pay for personal-use soap out of their commissary accounts and reported having to choose whether to shower or use the phone to contact loved ones during the limited periods they were let out under the “shelter-in-cell” policy that the jails had adopted in an effort to curb the virus’ spread.

“This is an important first step,” Yeh said in a statement. “But we still remain highly concerned that the severe long-term lockdown conditions, where people spend over 23 hours a day in a space the size of a bathroom, are having detrimental effects on the people in prison.”

Yeh and the team of lawyers representing the inmates vowed they will continue to litigate remaining issues including measures to enforce better social distancing protections behind bars.

U.S. District Judge Berle M. Schiller ordered the city to provide an update on its plans to address those concerns by Wednesday. City Solicitor Marcel Pratt said in a statement that many of the protections sought by the inmates had already been implemented and that prison officials continue to adapt their coronavirus strategy as the nature of the pandemic changes.

» READ MORE: Philly’s Federal Detention Center reports first two coronavirus cases

In all, 198 symptomatic inmates have been diagnosed with the disease since the virus took hold. One has died. As of Friday, only one infected prisoner continues to show symptoms of the disease, officials said.

The Department of Prisons also announced Friday that as a result of those declining case numbers, the jails would move into a “yellow" phase, the phrase the city and state have adopted to describe loosening of precautionary measures.

For those inmates not in isolation or quarantine, that means they will gradually be allowed more time out of their cells each day and routine services in common areas will be phased back in at a tentative rate.