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Lawsuit over Philly jails’ pandemic response alleges grim conditions, 24-hour lockdowns

Civil rights lawyers say Philadelphia's new women's jail is beset by “black mold, mildew, chipping paint, dirty mattresses, spider eggs, roaches, lack of ventilation and holes in the wall."

A file photograph of the Philadelphia Detention Center, which is mostly empty, as prisoners are reshuffled to more modern facilities.
A file photograph of the Philadelphia Detention Center, which is mostly empty, as prisoners are reshuffled to more modern facilities.Read more

Five months into the coronavirus pandemic, Philadelphia prisoners are still frequently locked in cells 24 hours a day without sufficient access to masks, soap, or cleaning supplies, a group of them allege in their latest filing in a federal lawsuit.

The city’s jails, which currently house 3,650 people, have been subject to a monitoring agreement since June, as part of a settlement between the city and 10 prisoners represented by a team of civil rights lawyers. Although the city reports only one current coronavirus case within its jails, lawyers say conditions remain grim. They also have raised alarms about the relocation of female prisoners from the longtime women’s jail to a former work-release unit that both prisoners and correctional officers complain is dilapidated and possibly hazardous.

“We thought 45 minutes out-of-cell time, when we agreed to it on June 3, was a good first step — but we get reports even that is not happening,” said Su Ming Yeh, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, which filed the lawsuit with the ACLU of Pennsylvania and others. “It’s vital to people to be able to take showers, to stay in touch with their families, and it’s much better for people’s mental health.”

City officials, in a response included in the joint filing, said prisoners are given four masks apiece upon arrival, soap is provided but at times wasted by inmates, and twice-weekly cleaning is conducted and sufficient. A spokesperson said the relocations allowed the city to ensure all prisoners are in safe, humane, and air-conditioned facilities.

Additionally, lawyers for the city said, prison officials “continue to make every effort to ensure that inmates get at least 45 minutes of out-of-cell time, and a substantial number of housing units meet or exceed this goal.”

The movement of the women to the units known as Alternative and Special Detention and Mod 3 allowed the city to move 500 men into the former women’s jail, Riverside Correctional Facility, while nearly emptying the city’s oldest working prison, the Detention Center, a 1963 structure that lacked air-conditioning.

Closing the Detention Center would be a milestone for the city, which has reduced its jail population by more than half in the last five years, allowing it to close an even older men’s prison, the 91-year-old House of Correction.

However, the civil rights lawyers argue that should not be accomplished by placing women into facilities plagued by “black mold, mildew, chipping paint, dirty mattresses, spiderwebs, spider eggs, roaches or water bugs, no air-conditioning, lack of ventilation, holes in the wall, and exposed wires.”

Activists have decried the climate in those facilities, publishing statements from women who described substandard conditions. “We’re locked in 24/7,” one said. “This is not a way of living.”

“We’ve been flooded with calls about the situation,” said Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

The top concerns, she said, were that “social distancing is impossible in those facilities, that keeping clean in Mod 3 is very difficult.”

The union representing correctional officers, AFSCME District Council 33, Local 159, has been fighting against the use of Mod 3 and is now asking for an indoor air-quality study, business agent Eric Hill said.

He said that during a previous period of disuse, the roof had been allowed to deteriorate, leading to extensive water damage. “Our position was, the building was antiquated and could not be used ... due to the dereliction of the building, the corrosion of the building and the odor within the building,” he said.

Dozens of prisoners have written to The Inquirer since the pandemic brought widespread lockdowns to the prisons, complaining they have no access to cleaning supplies and rarely get to leave their cells to shower.

”It’s impossible to practice social distancing when you’re sharing an estimated 8-by-10-foot cell with a total stranger,” wrote Richard Hack, who is awaiting trial on robbery charges. “We are living in inhumane conditions.”