A 60-year-old man was found Jan. 15 “lying face down on the floor of [his jail] cell, unconscious and bleeding with injuries” at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Northeast Philadelphia. He was pronounced dead minutes later, according to an internal incident report obtained by The Inquirer. The man’s 22-year-old cellmate was removed in handcuffs, the report stated.
The death of Dale Curbeam, who had been in jail less than a week awaiting trial on a charge of aggravated assault, came as staff and prisoners have described escalating tension within the city jails. Pandemic-related lockdowns there had severely restricted prisoners’ time out of cell since March, and nearly eliminated it under a shelter-in-place order imposed in December.
An Inquirer analysis of prison data found assaults on staff were up 44% for the first six months of lockdown compared with the average number of incidents reported over the same period for the five previous years. Suicide attempts, meanwhile, roughly doubled compared with prior years.
Curbeam is at least the third person killed in the city jails in the past six months. That puts the homicide rate in the jails at 15 times higher than the national average of four per 100,000 jail inmates, per the most recent data reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Naim Jones was fatally beaten in October 2020 at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center. A cellmate has been charged with murder.
Before that, another man, Frankie Diaz Jr., 30, was killed at the Philadelphia Detention Center in August 2020 — then the first homicide in a Philadelphia jail in several years.
After his death, his mother, Eva Diaz, protested in her wheelchair outside the jail for a month demanding answers. She said it was only after she took her protest to the District Attorney’s Office on Sept. 17 that she learned the death was ruled a homicide and that the cause, according to the medical examiner, was a blunt impact injury to the head. A cellmate, Adam Tann, was charged with third-degree murder. Tann’s lawyer did not return a call for comment Tuesday.
Diaz said she was still angry at a system that allowed the killing to happen and then made it difficult to access information.
“To me, they’re just as bad as the person that murdered my son,” she said. “If they would have been there doing their job, it would have been a different story, a different outcome. How it takes you a month to find that information, to notify the family? Bad enough we have to grieve the loss of my child — we [should not also] have to go out there and do protests to get an answer and move the case forward.”
“I feel so bad for that mom that now has to go through the same thing I’m going through,” she said.
A spokesperson for the medical examiner confirmed Curbeam’s death was ruled homicide by blunt impact head trauma. A spokesperson for the city said the death was under investigation by the Philadelphia police homicide unit, so the city could not comment. A Philadelphia police spokesperson said there was “no releasable information at this time.”
Reached by phone, Dale Curbeam’s sister said she was overwhelmed by the loss and could not immediately answer questions.
Staff and prisoners have attributed elevated tensions in the jails to short staffing and the mental health consequences of the strict lockdown. In recent court filings, the city said that the jails were adequately staffed and that lockdown conditions — limiting time out of cell to just 15 minutes a day for part of December and January — were necessary to curb the spread of COVID-19.
More than 1,250 prisoners have tested positive for the coronavirus, along with at least 350 staff, according to Eric Hill, business agent for the union representing city correctional officers. He said staff were in numerous cases not notified of coronavirus exposure, making it impossible to protect their families.
Hill laughed when asked if staffing was sufficient, and said there are “very low number of staff who report to work each day.” He said that and the shelter-in-place regimen had contributed to a climate of violence. “Ten minutes a day [out of cell], that’s what primarily led up to assaults on staff and other inmates. It was a constricted time period ... and many inmates felt it was not enough.”
Last week, a federal judge ordered the city to increase out-of-cell time to 45 minutes.
In letters, prisoners lamented that even the promised 15 minutes a day was often beyond reach. One man, Quadree Walker, reported going seven days in a row without a chance to leave his four-man cell for a shower or a phone call. In that time, he could not get a clean uniform, sheets or towels, or access to cleaning supplies, he said. “168 hours of smelling each other’s gases and body odors!” Walker wrote, adding that his complaints to staff were met with indifference. He provided 48 other inmates’ signatures backing his concerns.
“I am stressed out of my mind,” he said. “I already tried to commit suicide twice. I can’t take this too much longer. This is cruel and unusual punishment. It’s starting to affect me physically and mentally.”
Another prisoner, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, described the hardship of being locked in a cell 23 hours and 45 minutes a day, having to choose between showering or calling home. “I know if you break the law you go to jail. But in jail you should still have rights. We really don’t have a damn thing.”