As the city lifts its coronavirus restrictions, there’s one place little appears to have changed: the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, which went into lockdown in March 2020 and where people still report being locked in their cells for days at a time.
In January, a federal judge ordered the PDP to ensure at least three hours a day out of cell.
Now, civil rights lawyers want the jails to comply with that order — or be sanctioned with fines of $10,000 a day, payable to the city’s two community bail funds.
“Our clients have been in distress for a prolonged period of time, and the motion [for contempt] is an effort to get compliance to the court order,” said Su Ming Yeh, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, one of a group of firms that sued on behalf of the jail population in April 2020. “Isolation in lockdown conditions is harmful to people’s physical and mental health, and many people have been struggling in these lockdown conditions for ... over a year.”
A spokesperson said the city would file a response in court Wednesday.
Workers and prisoners alike have for months warned of a deteriorating climate at the jails, where five men were killed by cellmates just since August 2020. (Before that, there had been two homicides since 2017, according to prison death registers obtained through a Right to Know request.)
Many incarcerated people have described going weeks without a shower or phone call. Incident reports obtained by The Inquirer depict daily warfare, as men frequently “pop out” of their cells to fight each other or to assault staff, undeterred by locks that can be hacked or disabled. And absenteeism by workers has reached a catastrophic level: On Mother’s Day weekend, 64% of staff called out. Executive staff, including the commissioner, worked housing units to compensate.
Earlier in May, Senior U.S. District Judge Berle Schiller signed an order notifying the city that he “will strongly consider the imposition of monetary sanctions,” and warning the correctional officers’ union that it may be forced to join the litigation. He also ordered the city to fully fund three classes of correctional officers totaling at least 180 cadets, to discipline officers who miss work, and to pay bonuses for perfect attendance.
Schiller has not made a ruling on the proposal to pay $10,000 a day to the bail funds.
Sharon Dolovich, a law professor and director of the UCLA Prison Law & Policy Program, said she saw a “perfect symmetry” to the idea, since any reduction in population also might help improve conditions for the plaintiffs.
“Where you have crowded facilities where people are locked down,” she said, “there are going to be not just COVID deaths but other kinds of deaths and violence.”
At a City Council budget hearing last week, Commissioner Blanche Carney said she anticipates populations will be above 5,000 for the coming year. That would be a reversal after years of work to reduce the jail population. She said the jails “are severely impacted by excessive callouts” but denied that anyone was locked in a cell for days on end. She also described ongoing hiring challenges, and said the department is 333 staff short of its 2,006 budgeted positions.
Carney also said that a minority of housing units — 11 as of last week — are fully vaccinated and have two officers on duty to allow for more time out of cell. “That’s our way out into experiencing and returning to a new normal,” she said.
David Robinson, president of Local 159 of AFSCME District Council 33, representing officers, said the PDP had manufactured the staffing crisis by running just two cadet classes since 2018, and by failing to adequately support the workers it already has.
“These people work short-staffed every day,” he said. “You got one officer doing the job of three or four, and that burns you out.”
Officers since April have logged incidents in which men set fires; broke shatterproof cell windows; pelted staff with feces, trash, spit, and urine; and punched, charged, and bit them.
Meanwhile, reports from incarcerated people remain equally dire.
William Nagele, 32 — who was on probation for an old drug case and was jailed after losing touch with his probation officer in the pandemic — said the 12 days he spent in Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF) in April were the most traumatic of his life.
“I didn’t leave my cell for up to three days at a time, and when I was let out it was for 15 minutes,” said Nagele, who lives in Northeast Philadelphia and works as a lab technician. He had no time to shower at the jail, he said — and, in any case, no soap.
“I felt scared that anything could happen there with the lack of supervision,” he said. “You could be dead in your cell. My one cellmate actually had a seizure, and it took them forever to get up there. We were banging and screaming and kicking on the door.”
One of the alleged homicides at the jail, which resulted in the death of Armani Faison, occurred when the unit was unstaffed for three hours, according to internal logs reviewed by The Inquirer.
In another deadly incident, a man named Rahsaan Chambers called home in April to tell his mother that he could not breathe, but was being denied access to medical treatment. It was not until the following evening that he was taken to Jefferson Torresdale Hospital, where he was placed on life support and died a week later.
His mother, Ebony Chambers, said she found out he was hospitalized not from the jail but from a friend who was on the same cell block.
“His cellie called for help and they didn’t respond,” she said. “I believe if they had, my son would still be alive.”
Other family members, who have taken to protesting outside the jails each Friday, said they sometimes wait anxiously for days or weeks between calls from incarcerated loved ones.
My Le, an organizer with the Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project, said her son’s father, who is jailed at CFCF, believed the protests are yielding some improvements.
But, she said, “they aren’t allowed to sanitize and clean their cells. They still don’t get to shower on the weekends.”
Those incarcerated say the disarray has lasting consequences. One man said his prosthetic leg had been confiscated when he was locked up. He’d been given a wheelchair but assigned a non-wheelchair accessible cell. And, when he was released, he said, his prosthetic was lost for about two weeks. Another said he had no access to a working toilet at CFCF for five days in April. He said that ever since, he’s been in constant gut distress — but that 25 sick call slips had not resulted in any medical treatment.
One staff member, who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak, confirmed the accounts of incarcerated people: filthy, trash-strewn cell blocks; rodent and insect infestations; mental and physical health care running a month or more behind schedule; correctional officers skipping required rounds because they are so short-staffed.
He said protective and restricted housing units are full, and normal classification protocols have broken down — to the point that one man accused of killing his cellmate during a psychotic episode was briefly placed, just one week later, back in a two-man cell.
As a result, he said, he’s seeing increased volatility among prisoners. “I had a guy supposedly trying to hang himself. He was like: ‘Yeah, I haven’t talked to my family in three weeks. I just had to get somebody’s attention.’”