Danielle Calabro had not heard from her younger brother, Christopher Hinkle, in a few days. Then, on April 12, she received a life-changing phone call: Hinkle, 37, had been arrested on drug charges and placed in a Philadelphia jail, where he had been badly beaten by another prisoner.
When she finally saw him at Jefferson-Torresdale Hospital, Calabro said it was “a horrific, horrific scene.”
“It looks like he went through an extremely traumatic experience,” she said. ”He’s currently fully paralyzed, in a medically induced coma, and his prognosis to live is extremely poor.”
Doctors advised the family to plan for end-of-life care, she said. If he should die, Hinkle would be the fifth man allegedly beaten to death by a cellmate in a city jail since August.
It’s the latest instance of what staff and observers say is a mounting crisis at Philadelphia jails, where the population has increased to 4,718. The jails have been effectively in lockdown since the start of the pandemic. They’ve also been in civil-rights litigation, and are under court order to let people out of their cells at least three hours a day.
But, in letters, many prisoners described going weeks without movement. Staff, meanwhile, say violent outbursts are growing more frequent, often by prisoners breaching their cell doors or, once out, refusing to go back in.
“At what point does the city take accountability to say: What’s going on in these jails? Because it’s not safe — not safe at all,” said David Robinson, president of Local 159 of AFSCME District Council 33, the union representing correctional officers.
Philadelphia prisons spokesperson Shawn Hawes said she could not comment on Hinkle’s assault but that generally staff respond accordingly to assaults as they occur.
In court filings in the federal civil-rights lawsuit, prison officials blamed chronic staff absenteeism for many current issues.
“Shortages of staff reporting to work is the main contributor to the insufficient out of cell time, and when appropriate staff are being disciplined,” lawyers for the city wrote in an April report to the court. In affidavits, deputy wardens reported “strenuous staff shortages,” describing shifts during which as many as 14 out of 15 workers drafted to stay on duty for overtime went home sick.
Hinkle was housed on the same cellblock at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility where Armani Faison was killed on March 27 and where Dale Curbeam was killed on Jan. 15. According to internal documents, no staff were on the unit when Faison was assaulted. A person with knowledge of the situation said only one staffer was assigned when Curbeam was attacked.
“Every day an officer works by himself, and some days some pods are unmanned, meaning no one is on the post,” Robinson said, adding that it prevents them from responding rapidly to emergencies. “If you had a partner, you’d open the door faster, compared to waiting for a response team.”
Internal incident reports and desperate handwritten letters to relatives and The Inquirer describe dangerous situations almost daily.
On April 21, two prisoners breached their cell door, stabbing another man with a homemade weapon. That man and three officers were injured in the aftermath, according to an incident report. On April 19, two men set sheets on fire at one of the jails. On April 13, two more breached their cells for yet another brawl.
“It has been over two weeks since I was able to use the phone and take a shower,” Eli Rosa wrote from CFCF, in one typical letter. “I’ve done had seizures, fights and fell off my bunk, and no C/O was around to help me get medical attention.”
Armani Faison’s sister Dream said she is still pleading for answers about her brother’s death.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has charged Kevin Massey, 31, with his rape and slaying, and the indecent assault of another prisoner. The office has charged Mustaffa Rasul, 22, with murder in the death of Curbeam.
Hinkle’s assault is still under investigation, Hawes said, so no information could be released. According to an internal report obtained by The Inquirer, he was found unconscious on April 12, and his 27-year-old cellmate admitted to the assault.
The cellmate was in jail for a string of alleged random assaults. In February, police say, he kicked a man in the face on a SEPTA train, punched a woman at a train station, and head-butted a police officer in the face. In April, he was accused of striking a person in the face with a pipe.
Hinkle, who grew up in Ocean Township, N.J., and had worked in the hospitality field, was in jail less than a week on drug-dealing charges before his assault. He had been arrested on similar charges twice before in 2021 and released on bail. His sister described him as a kindly, nonviolent extrovert. Jordan Strokovsky, whose firm is representing the family, said information about the assault has been frustratingly scarce.
“We’re trying to understand, how does a nonviolent inmate get bunked with a repeatedly violent criminal?” Calabro asked. “Where were the guards who were supposed to be protecting Chris, my kind brother? How is this repeatedly allowed to happen? There are a lot of questions we would like to get to the bottom of so this doesn’t happen to the next person.”