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Hunger, filth, constant danger: Prisoners’ accounts of Philly jails paint a grim picture

Incarcerated people warn of inhumane conditions at the Philadelphia Department of Prisons. One man said he lost 20 pounds due to lack of food. Another said he had been outdoors once in six months.

A file photograph of Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, part of the Philadelphia Department of Prisons complex in Northeast Philadelphia.
A file photograph of Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, part of the Philadelphia Department of Prisons complex in Northeast Philadelphia.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Forty-two days without a shower. Foot-deep sewage flooding cells. Broken or ignored emergency call buttons. These are some of the claims raised in the latest filing in a federal class-action lawsuit against the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, which included 70 pages of affidavits by 18 incarcerated people.

“The conditions at the Philadelphia prisons really are very dire,” said Su Ming Yeh, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “There are not only sanitation issues and infestations of vermin, but also delays in medical care, increase in violence, and a breakdown in operations.”

The jails, which house about 4,600 people in a complex in Northeast Philadelphia, have struggled for the past year with a staffing crisis, facility failures including broken locks, and a climate of violence. Fourteen people have died in custody this year. (That’s the same death toll as in New York’s Rikers Island, which has three times as many prisoners.)

The prisons department announced last week that it is resuming in-person visits for vaccinated prisoners, as mandated by Senior U.S. District Judge Berle M. Schiller. But according to the filing, the jails are still not keeping up with Schiller’s orders to increase out-of-cell time as a step toward full reopening by January 2022.

A department spokesperson said she could not comment because of the ongoing litigation. The department has said it’s hiring more officers to address staffing shortages, but that essential services are being provided and all violent incidents are thoroughly investigated.

The affidavits offered a window into life inside. Here’s what they described:

Continued lockdowns

At the start of the pandemic, movement in the jails was radically curtailed — and many say they are still locked in for days on end. “I have gone 42 days without being able to take a shower,” said Qaasim Berry, 25, in an affidavit, adding he had not made a phone call for a “couple months.” He said the situation is “seriously affecting my mental health.”

Several people said getting outdoors for fresh air was a rarity. One man said he’d been outside only once in six months. Several alleged that staff told them to forge paperwork falsely claiming they were receiving court-mandated out-of-cell time.

» READ MORE: ‘Unit unsafe’: Inside a week of riots, fires, and destruction at Philly jails

Deteriorating infrastructure

Staff have complained for months that prisoners are able to pop open their cells. The broken locks — now backed up with sliding bolts on many cells — are just one reported plant failure. Some prisoners described floods, freezing temperatures, and infestations of rats, mice, and insects.

“The building seems to be decomposing, with water leaks everywhere and what looks like black mold growing on the walls,” Calar Braxton, 47, said of the Detention Center, the city’s oldest functioning jail.

Zyen Corker, 21, said a flood on his block at Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center left “a foot of water that remained stagnant inside my cell for 48 hours.”

Breakdown of basic services

Several people reported meal trays arriving very early or very late — for instance, dinner at 3:30 p.m., or lunch and dinner showing up together. They described weeks without access to the commissary to supplement their food supplies. One man, Cedrick Brookins, 30, said he lost 20 or 25 pounds because of it. Another, Donovin Forth, 29, said he’s supposed to received prescribed meal-supplement shakes because of a gunshot wound to the face that makes chewing difficult — but often they don’t arrive or are stolen. “Sometimes I am so hungry that I go to bed crying, so I try to drink so much water that I feel full.”

Most lamented a dearth of cleaning supplies, toilet paper, and face masks. Several said they were unable to get prescribed medications or medical care, resulting in worsening health conditions.

Some days, Corker said, even the lights are not turned on: “We sit in the dark all day.”

» READ MORE: Stabbings at Philly jail went unnoticed amid staff shortages, video shows

Emergencies ignored

Carlos Duprey, who is 49 and diabetic, said there’s an emergency button in his cell, but it doesn’t work. “I have had hypoglycemic events and anxiety attacks in my cell with no way to ask staff for help,” he said. Others said the buttons did work, but it could take eight or 10 hours for staff to acknowledge them.

Michael Flynn, 64, said he fell and fractured bones in his hand on Sept. 2 — but he was not taken to a hospital until Oct. 4, when it was finally placed in a cast.

Norman Copper, 30, said a man on his cell block last year “hanged himself. His cellie was banging for help for hours.”

Unchecked violence

“I have seen COs beat an incarcerated person on this unit while he was handcuffed,” Brookins said. Several described stabbings, fights, and liberal use of pepper spray as daily occurrences. A few who were hit with pepper spray said they were not permitted to take decontamination showers. “It felt like my skin was on fire,” Berry said.

“On one occasion, I saw someone get pepper-sprayed for demanding insulin that was not being provided: a simple verbal argument. I then saw guards attack the person after he was pepper-sprayed,” Caez Robinson, 24, said. Robinson himself was stabbed, he said, but no staff intervened. Instead, they waited until the attack was over, sent him to get stitches, and then moved him to “the hole” for 30 days’ punitive isolation.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at