Two people died in a week in Philly jails. Workers say a staffing crisis is partly to blame.
“Officers are scared for their lives. Inmates are scared for their lives,” said the president of the union representing correctional officers at Philadelphia jails.
Two people in Philadelphia Department of Prisons custody have died in the last week and another is hospitalized, the latest in a string of deaths that staff and incarcerated people say are linked to dysfunction and a staffing crisis at the city jails.
The deaths occurred at a time when many posts considered essential are being left unstaffed, reports obtained by The Inquirer show.
One man who attempted to hang himself on July 25 and remains hospitalized was on an intake block at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF) where internal logs indicate no tours or checks were made for more than two hours before staff attempted to revive him.
Three days earlier, Christi Buoncristiano died after falling from the second tier at the Detention Center. Her death was ruled a suicide. And Juan Rosario-Lopez died July 27; the Medical Examiner’s Office has not determined the cause.
“Officers are scared for their lives. Inmates are scared for their lives,” said David Robinson, president of Local 159 of AFSCME District Council 33, which represents correctional officers. He cited concerns with staffing levels as well as hackable locks that allow incarcerated people to open cell doors. “They keep saying people aren’t coming to work, but they aren’t giving the reason why: It’s unsafe. It’s totally unsafe inside.”
A city spokesperson declined requests to interview Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney or city leadership for this article but said in an email that staffing is now adequate to cover all posts and that any allegations to the contrary are “misinformation [that] undermines the Department’s efforts to support staff and provide security.” The spokesperson said the issue with locks is being addressed through training, repairs, and replacements.
In a July 21 letter to the Pennsylvania Prison Society, Carney said conditions had greatly improved, noting 23 recent hires.
Staff and incarcerated people say a crisis has been brewing for more than a year. The jails began limiting out-of-cell time to 45 minutes a day during the pandemic, but many people reported they were not receiving even that. In January, a federal judge ordered a minimum of three hours a day of movement — and the jails in June agreed to comply and pay $125,000 to the city’s bail funds to avoid a contempt finding.
That month, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart urged the city to hire 300 correctional officers to address what she called a critical staffing shortage.
Since then, the department has sent letters to 196 retired staff, inviting them to apply to return to work temporarily.
But documents indicate severe shortages continue: A review of 20 daily emergency staffing reports for the 3-11 p.m. shift at Curran-Fromhold, the city’s largest jail, indicates that, on average, only 53% of scheduled security staff reported for work.
On some shifts, the department resorted to drafting 10 or 20 workers from the previous shift for mandatory overtime, internal documents show. But some of them called out sick, too. Records indicate weekends and holidays are especially problematic: On July 4, only 33 of 126 scheduled security staff showed up for CFCF’s 3-11 p.m. shift. They were supplemented by 21 drafted overtime workers, five of whom called out sick for the extra shift.
Now, the Prison Society is once again receiving reports of people locked down for up to four days in a row.
“It’s an unbelievable situation that the city is not treating like the crisis it is,” said the group’s executive director, Claire Shubik-Richards
In each of the last four years, 11 people have died in Philadelphia jails, according to death registers obtained by The Inquirer. Seven months into this year, the death toll has already reached that number.
On July 26, another man was taken to the hospital with “several stab wounds to the head, neck and back” that were considered life-threatening, an internal report showed. According to the log from his unit at Riverside Correctional Facility, obtained by The Inquirer, the attack was one of several that occurred after more than two dozen men were able to breach their cells and refused orders to go back in, causing the lone officer on duty to retreat to a unit control booth while he waited for reinforcements, according to the log, “because the unit was not safe.”
In a July 13 memo to Carney, the Prison Society reported issues including months-long delays in requests for medical care and lack of access to toilet paper that left some men tearing up sheets as a replacement.
In response, Carney said all of those issues either were exaggerated or false, or had already been addressed.
Members of City Council remain deeply concerned. Councilmember Helen Gym called the situation “a dire emergency” that requires coordinated action from the city and courts. And Councilmember Kendra Brooks said she continues to receive constituent complaints lamenting inhumane conditions and “a severe staffing shortage.”
“I don’t see it getting better until we take care of the issue that there’s not enough staff,” Brooks said.
Lewis Brown, who was released July 13 from the prison, insisted that staffing issues persist. One night he was experiencing chest pains and shouted for help for hours, but no one came, he said.
“I had to keep going to psych, because I was really losing my mind,” he said. “You’re in the cell all day long.”