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29 people died in Philly jails in the pandemic. City officials say they did a ‘good job.’

Staffers, prisoners, and outside observers say the situation at Philly jails has deteriorated during the pandemic to a full-blown crisis.

Mark Subher was attacked and injured while in prison.
Mark Subher was attacked and injured while in prison.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

As he watched his blood soak through the last of his makeshift bandages and puddle on the floor, Mark Subher wondered if he would die in his jail cell in Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Northeast Philadelphia.

That morning in September, a correctional officer had unlocked all the doors on the unit. Then, according to Subher, she left. What happened next was captured on video obtained by The Inquirer: Three prisoners attacked Subher, one stabbing him repeatedly with a homemade knife, others punching and stomping him. After Subher got away, they had time to conceal the evidence, mopping up the trail of blood.

“I’m praying the whole time: ‘God, please get me through this,’” Subher said. He grew lightheaded as he hit the emergency buzzer in his cell over and over.

Alone in his cell, Subher popped his dislocated shoulder back into place and used T-shirts as bandages, he said. It took five T-shirts, and about an hour and a half before help finally arrived.

“It’s like a waking nightmare,” Subher said of his time at the Philadelphia city jails, where he was held pending trial for attempted murder before being acquitted of all charges. (More than half of the jails’ 4,300 prisoners, like Subher, have not yet been tried.)

There, he experienced firsthand conditions that staffers, prisoners, and outside observers say have deteriorated during the pandemic to a full-blown crisis — and that they say officials have downplayed or sought to cover up.

Subher described months of lockdowns, leaving his cell an hour or two a day (and not at all on many weekends). In his precious minutes of movement, he said, he had to choose: a call home, a call to his lawyer, or a shower “just to feel normal.” He pleaded for toilet paper, sometimes using a sock or T-shirt instead. He watched, eyes stinging and watering, as a man was pepper-sprayed just for breakdancing. He heard how other prisoners could jam their cell locks with plastic bags so they could jump out and fight. Like many others, he went hungry when, a few times a week, staff simply didn’t deliver meals.

In Subher’s 22 months in the jails, 25 people died — an annual jail mortality rate 77% higher than the national average. All told, there were at least 29 deaths since the start of the pandemic, including three by suicide, five by homicide, and 10 by drug overdose. During at least two deaths, no staff were present, according to eyewitness accounts and internal documents obtained by The Inquirer.

The Philadelphia Department of Prisons acknowledged only two of the deaths in news releases.

In interviews and lawsuits, staff and prisoners have attributed the deaths, riots, and assaults to a dangerously short-staffed department. The deficit has climbed to 644 officers — 36% short of a full complement — exacerbated by absenteeism, averaging 20% of staff per shift, but sometimes topping 90%. Over the last year, twice as many officers left as were hired.

» READ MORE: Panic attacks and 20-hour workdays: Why Philly corrections officers are quitting in droves

City leaders, including Mayor Jim Kenney, either declined interview requests or defended the conditions at the complex, casting staff complaints in particular as a negotiating tactic during ongoing contract talks.

Commissioner Blanche Carney also declined an interview. Her office provided written responses to questions, acknowledging that conditions “are challenging,” but attributed that to outside forces: “The Covid-19 pandemic has created challenges in corrections nationwide.” The statement said “aggressive hiring,” the decline of COVID-19 infections, and resumption of court cases would resolve those challenges.

The statement said that no units have been left unstaffed or short-staffed. “Allegations have often been made completely without context and are often inaccurate.”

Getting accurate information about the jails appears to be a challenge even for those charged with monitoring them. Members of the city’s own Prison Advisory Board said they are unclear what their role is, or whether they have any authority at all.

A grand jury probe has hung over the jails like a storm cloud for a year, without any findings or charges being unsealed. And a federal lawsuit over COVID precautions has expanded into sprawling class-action litigation over jail conditions. Under a recent settlement agreement, an independent monitor will be appointed and report to Senior U.S. District Judge Berle Schiller. But over the past two years, many of Schiller’s orders were not executed.

» READ MORE: Philly prison officials agree to an independent monitor and hiring bonuses to settle lawsuit

That is just the latest in a half-century’s worth of civil rights litigation over alleged violations at the jails. Repeatedly, Philadelphia officials have pledged to address what courts warned were unconstitutional conditions, from an intake area so crowded that prisoners were forced to sleep on the floor, to dangerously low staffing levels and woeful medical care.

More recently, advocates said conditions had improved. Yet, staffing shortages had been mounting even before the pandemic, causing frequent lockdowns.

David Robinson, president of the correctional officers union, Local 159 of AFSCME District Council 33, said the city never responded with a serious recruiting effort.

“Now, it snowballed, " he said, “and they can’t hire fast enough to keep this jail safe anymore.”

‘Dangerous’ and ‘hostile’

Trent Mason was supposed to be home already.

The 38-year-old father and cook at a popular Center City pub had been locked up in January, charged in a domestic incident with assault. But on Feb. 4, his bail was changed to “unsecured.” It meant Mason could be released. He just had to wait for a sheriff’s officer to transport him to traffic court. (Under city policy, anyone with $5,000 in traffic court debt must be taken to traffic court to set up a payment plan before release.)

But Mason never made it to traffic court. Instead, on Feb. 8, he died in his cell.

Representatives of the prisons and medical examiner said the cause remains under investigation.

Mason’s family is losing patience. ”I want answers,” said his sister Shareka Mangum. “They’re not giving them to me. It’s very overwhelming and stressful, because I can’t get no closure.”

So far, every new fact she’s learned about his death has further alarmed her: It occurred four days after he could have gone home, on a cell block where no officer was present, without an identifying wristband on.

And reports from inside the jail raise still more questions. Damarcus Tucker, who was incarcerated on the same cell block, described hearing Mason banging and shouting for hours, before suddenly going quiet. According to Tucker, the sprinkler in Mason’s cell had gone off, flooding it with cold, filthy water. He said the entire cell block started shouting and banging but correctional officers didn’t arrive for two hours. It then took hours for staff to correctly identify Mason, Tucker and others said.

That timing aligns with internal logs, obtained by The Inquirer, that show no entries after an “OK tour” at 6:14 p.m. until medical staff were called at 8:50 p.m. Mason is misidentified in the log.

“There are times we’re in a cell and no COs are on the block for hours at a time,” Tucker said. “You can be in a cell with someone who is homicidal, suicidal, and no one is coming.”

Tensions are high after two years of lockdowns. Staff have used force at elevated rates, and prisoner assaults are up. When violence breaks out, incarcerated people are more likely to be armed. For those who need medical care, the average wait is nearly 13 days.

Bradford Hansen, a retired prison warden retained as an expert by the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit, summarized the conditions as “hostile” and “dangerous.”

“This crisis is creating an unsafe and violent environment for inmates to live in,” Hansen wrote in a report completed in March. “It must be stated emphatically that, while there is a shortage of staff, the Philadelphia Prison system still has the duty to protect inmates.”

The city has paid out $835,000 since January 2021 for lawsuits alleging staff assaults, wrongful deaths, and medical negligence. The largest settlement, $310,000, went to an epileptic man who in 2019 was placed in a top bunk, had a seizure, and then fell, fracturing his neck.

Still pending are lawsuits by the families of Christopher Hinkle and Armani Faison, both beaten fatally by cellmates. In Faison’s case, the alleged perpetrator had just been removed from another cell over claims he sexually assaulted his cellmate.

Other recent civil complaints claim abuses by staff: One man alleged an officer stomped on him and beat him with a walkie-talkie, an incident caught on video obtained by The Inquirer. Another man alleged that three officers and a sergeant ordered him to strip naked, then beat him so badly they fractured a rib and ruptured a testicle. A third said an officer beat and pepper-sprayed him, warning he would “die like George Floyd.” Yet another alleged a group of prisoners stabbed him, telling him the lieutenant on duty had “told you not to f— with her.”

» READ MORE: ‘We need help’: Video, reports depict violence and ‘riots’ at Philadelphia jails

Hansen, the corrections expert, noted that the jails have seen a 76% increase in staff uses of force compared with before the pandemic. Use of pepper spray nearly doubled.

Carney, in her statement, said “pepper spray can help correctional staff avoid the need for physical actions” and injuries. She said all incidents are reviewed internally.

But Hansen wrote that nearly one-third of the pepper-spray incident reports he reviewed were possibly excessive. He said staff are supposed to gain compliance through a three-step “ask, advise, order” protocol, before escalating to pepper spray. Instead, he wrote, “Staff have grown accustomed to giving a direct order and then spraying.”

Jerome Lewis, who is awaiting trial on a drug case, described such an encounter in February: An officer ordered him into his cell and, when he did not comply immediately, pepper-sprayed him at close range, he said.

Lewis admitted swinging at the officer in response. Then, he alleged, he was surrounded by officers who kicked, punched, and stomped on him as he drifted in and out of consciousness. A log obtained by The Inquirer reports that Lewis and an officer were sent to outside hospitals with “facial injuries.” On a recent visit, Lewis still had visible bruises, splints on a finger and a wrist, and a bandage over one eye. A prison spokesperson said the incident is under investigation.

According to Hansen, prisoners are also at particular risk from armed assaults, given that the jails appear to be awash in drugs and homemade weapons.

After analyzing the department’s data, he noted that the annual number of contraband searches declined — from more than 40,000 in 2019 to barely 2,000 in 2021. Yet, the amount of contraband found increased fivefold. Hansen concluded that prisoners had grown emboldened under lax enforcement.

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

Carney’s statement denied that searches had declined. It said the department has redoubled efforts to intercept contraband.

The level of violence has, among other things, hampered routine medical care. Some nurses refused to go onto housing units after staff had left them alone there and fights broke out, the jails’ medical director, Bruce Herdman, said in a deposition.

Herdman said that’s added to other challenges facing medical contractor Corizon, including staffing vacancies that peaked at 20% in February, contributing to the nearly two-week wait for sick calls.

The medical director also acknowledged that staffing shortages had pushed the average wait for an intake assessment to eight hours, twice as long as the department’s four-hour target.

One man, Hector Leandry, was still being held in the intake area when he died March 9, three days after his arrest on a drug case, according to several people familiar with the situation. His death is still under investigation, according to the Medical Examiner’s Office.

“What does that mean to me?” said Tom Innes, jail liaison for the Defender Association of Philadelphia. “No one saw that person right away, and no one was overseeing them.”

‘It’s game... Hide ‘em’

In October 2021, Lt. Sholonda Gregory took what felt like a perilous step and wrote a letter to Mayor Kenney.

She described herself as a “mother, sister, daughter,” and 23-year prisons employee, and said she was experiencing a crisis of conscience over “human rights violations” in the jails.

She wrote that she was shocked to learn that 564 people, about 12% of the population, were in solitary confinement, some for as long as a year. And she wrote that she has repeatedly been forced to put her life on the line to quell riots: “Inmates breached their cell doors, causing damage to the facility, breaking video surveillance cameras [and] electronic unit consoles … dispersing fire extinguishers and barricading themselves inside the unit.”

Then, Gregory described a massive cover-up, saying both the public and Judge Schiller were being misled.

She said prison officials lied to minimize the extent of the riots. She said she was told to falsify logs to make it appear that prisoners had received access to showers and phone calls as ordered by Schiller. And, she alleged that staff rosters were being padded with workers who were injured on duty, on family leave, or retired — creating the false appearance of a fully staffed jail.

In a lawsuit filed in March, Gregory added new allegations of whistleblower retaliation. She had been demoted to sergeant and transferred — punitively, she believed. Gregory declined an interview request.

Her claims echo allegations incarcerated people, staff, and union leaders have raised for months: that a lack of transparency by Carney’s team has concealed the depths of the jails’ problems, and that those who speak up risk retaliation.

Incarcerated people have said in affidavits that they, too, were recruited by officers to sign the falsified time logs. Yvonne Newkirk, a volunteer with the Pennsylvania Prison Society, reported hearing the complaint on recent visits as well.

She and other visitors also alleged that prison staff staged aspects of their tours, like real-estate agents ahead of a showing.

Newkirk said she spotted bottles of cleaning solution, contradicting prisoners’ complaints about a shortage. On closer inspection, she said, the bottles were empty. Incarcerated people told her they’d just been placed there in advance of the visit.

David Robinson, the union president, described a similar pattern in the intake area, which has limited capacity and is not designed for overnight stays. Robinson alleged that he observed close to 100 prisoners crowded in during unannounced visits — but just five or six during pre-scheduled tours.

“They don’t want the truth out there.”

David Robinson, president of the correctional officers’ union, Local 159 of AFSCME District Council 33

“It’s a game they play, it’s like, hide ’em,” he said. “On a regular day, they’re flooded with inmates. The day that [Leandry] passed away, I believe there may have been 50 to 60 inmates in the receiving room at that time.”

Robinson said his members told him they’ve been instructed by supervisors to minimize “flash” reports — major incident reports that are widely distributed to city officials. And, he alleged, he wasn’t notified in January when yet another riot occurred at the Detention Center, where he said 40 prisoners set fires and destroyed property. Robinson said he learned of the riot only because a worker who was hit with a broomstick suffered a concussion and required extended medical leave.

“They don’t want the truth out there,” he said. “If you did a flash every day, [city officials] would look at them like, what’s going on?”

‘Proud of the many successes’

By April 2021, Claire Shubik-Richards was growing concerned.

The executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a nonprofit authorized by state law to enter jails and prisons, had not been inside Philadelphia’s jails in over a year. But alarming messages were trickling out of the jails in letters and phone calls — then flooding out. To Shubik-Richards, the pattern was striking: At other prisons and jails across the state, complaints declined as pandemic restrictions were loosened. In Philadelphia they doubled in April. In May, they increased again by two-thirds. The number has remained elevated ever since, she said.

In June, the organization was permitted to visit the jails. It was unlike any visit she had done before. In the majority of the pods she visited, “the men were locked in their cells and no staff were present,” she wrote in a letter to Carney. It was eerily silent. On one pod, she wrote, some men noticed the visitors and began screaming, pleading for family visits. Within minutes, “men were screaming from the majority of cells.”

It was the first of several visits, each one followed by a memo to Carney alleging “a crisis.” Shubik-Richards cataloged prolonged lockdowns, unsanitary conditions, infestations, heightened violence, a lack of toilet paper and cleaning supplies, broken emergency call buttons, inadequate access to showers and phone calls, delays in medical care, and breakdowns in the systems for grievances and prisoner disciplinary hearings. She began publicly urging Mayor Kenney to appoint a crisis manager, or even call in the National Guard.

» READ MORE: Public defender says Philly jails are ‘cruel and callous,’ and violate clients’ rights

In response, Carney wrote the concerns were “not well founded.” She denied that units were left unstaffed. She said there was ample toilet paper and cleaning supplies, and a pest-control contract. And she demanded the names of any prisoners who alleged they’d been denied out-of-cell time or told to fabricate logs, saying she could not assess the claims unless provided specifics.

After four rounds of strident memos and dismissive responses, Shubik-Richards acknowledged the limited impact of such pleas. It’s been lonely work over the last year, she said. “We have a lot of stakeholders” — meaning city, state, and court officials — “that don’t think there is anything they can do.”

The Prison Society represents just one of many layers of monitoring or oversight of the jails: There’s also a Prison Advisory Board, though its role is hazy. There’s Schiller, and his court-ordered remedies for “unconstitutional” conditions. And, of course, there is city leadership, from City Council up to the managing director and the mayor himself.

So far, though, they have not been able to align on proposed solutions — nor do they even seem to agree on whether a problem exists.

For instance, last June, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart publicly urged Kenney to take action on what she called a “tipping point” in the correctional staffing crisis.

In a letter written in response, Kenney defended the prisons, attributed any issues there to larger labor market trends, and insisted hiring efforts were well underway. “I am proud of the many successes we have accomplished with the leadership of the PDP team,” his letter concluded.

In an interview, City Councilmember Curtis Jones, who chairs the Committee on Public Safety, offered a similar perspective. He said criticisms were politically “accented,” if not politically motivated.

“[Carney] did a really good job under difficult circumstances,” he said. “You have to take into consideration that there needs to be labor peace.”

Internally, the Prison Advisory Board is also split. Its chairman, the Rev. Rodney Muhammad, said he had no specific concerns regarding the jails’ operation. “What correctional institution is not facing challenges today?” he asked.

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

Some members have complained that they are unclear what their role is.

“The board pretty much exists to say there’s a board,” said one person familiar with the board’s meetings, who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak to a reporter. That person said the board does not regularly tour the institutions, does not have access to most internal data or reports, and has not issued advice or standards for the jails.

Even the federal lawsuit — which so far has racked up sanctions totaling $250,000 paid to community bail funds — has so far failed to extract compliance. Schiller first ordered the jails to provide three hours a day of out-of-cell time for inmates in February 2021, increasing to eight hours by January 2022. That has not happened.

David Rudovsky, one of the civil rights lawyers representing prisoners, said he’s hopeful that the pending settlement — which includes an outside monitor and a commitment by the city to pay hiring and retention bonuses — will at last yield results.

Others who have worked on such lawsuits for decades have grown skeptical.

One, Angus Love, said he believes that conditions are worse than ever and that prisoners remain “at the caboose of the train of who cares.”

In retrospect, he said, he and other lawyers were repeatedly “bought off” with financial settlements: “Many times the city felt, and I think that’s still the prevailing view, that it’s easier to pay up and make these people go away than to address the conditions.”

More staff, fewer prisoners

In March of 2022, Shubik-Richards and other Prison Society members visited the jails yet again.

This time, she said, about half of the broken locks had been replaced. The emergency call buttons were working. The men she spoke with said they had access to showers. She was also relieved to learn that the city had hired former Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel as a consultant.

“Everything else was the same disaster,” she said. “It’s still a crisis.”

What it will take to stabilize and secure the jails remains a larger question. Many agree it will require hiring far more staff while curbing attrition — or finding a way to reduce the number of incarcerated people to align with the number of staff available to supervise them. Shubik-Richards argues for a coordinated, all-of-the-above effort.

To Jones, the main issue is hiring, which can be solved like other recruiting challenges with signing bonuses and salary increases. He said cutting back on mandatory overtime will improve on this year’s 24% turnover rate.

Carney’s statement said 71 officers had been hired in March or were in the training academy, a step toward filling 644 vacancies.

Herdman, the medical director, said in his deposition that the medical staff shortfall had also been reduced, from 20% vacancy to 13%. But he cited the same problem facing hospitals that have seen nurses defect to travel-nurse agencies that will triple their salaries. For now, the prisons, too, have turned to agency workers — to staff a $1.4 million health-care “blitz” to catch up on the backlog of medical calls.

In the long term, the city has committed to reduce Philadelphia’s jail population, which was more than 8,500 back in 2015, to a target of 4,000 by the end of 2022.

» READ MORE: Philly receives $2.3 million grant to continue working to reduce its jail population

Kurtis August, interim director of the Office of Criminal Justice, said those efforts are ongoing, ranging from reentry housing for people with serious mental illness, to expediting parole, to community organizing to address racial disparities.

Next steps, he said, include establishing a program to ensure public defenders can speak with each person arrested before preliminary arraignment, at which bail is set. A pilot program that placed defense staff in the Police Detention Unit had shown improved case outcomes — however it was halted after the staffers alleged chronic police harassment.

Innes, of the Defender Association, said there’s far more the city could do — and should rush to do in light of dangerous jail conditions.

For one, if the city invested in GPS-equipped house arrest monitors, it would be able to release defendants on house arrest without sending them to jail to await a process that includes home inspection.

“The first three, four, five days of jail are the most expensive,” he said, citing the numerous medical and drug screenings, “so if they don’t have to go up to the jail that would help immensely.”

‘You’re not safe’

After Subher was stabbed last September, staffers moved him into protective custody, in a windowless “multipurpose room” with three other men and no switch to turn off the light.

His lawyer, Evan Hughes, sought a bail reduction or house arrest after Subher was assaulted. The DA’s Office objected, and the court denied it.

“It’s not just the inhumane conditions in the jail,” Hughes said, “but also the courts that are supposed to be monitoring the situation. There is just a lack of care all around.”

In November, after being found not guilty at trial, Subher began trying to rebuild his life. A father of four and a former commercial truck driver now on disability due to the jail injuries, he’s in treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. “It’s traumatizing,” he said. “I can’t sleep. It just replays a lot.”

He is now suing the city, which he sees as culpable for what happened to him.

“You’re not safe. If you’re not guilty, if you are guilty, it doesn’t matter. You’re not safe in that building by any means. No one is safe.”

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