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Philly prisons move to ‘shelter in place’ as COVID outbreak tears through jail

In-person hearings for prisoners are canceled indefinitely, likely adding to a backlog affecting thousands of cases in Philadelphia's criminal courts.

Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, Philadelphia's largest men's jail.
Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, Philadelphia's largest men's jail.Read moreTim Tai / Staff file photo

A COVID-19 outbreak inside Philadelphia’s jails has infected at least 150, causing the Department of Prisons to adopt “shelter in place” measures and to cancel prisoner transports to court dates indefinitely.

“Due to a recent uptick in asymptomatic positive cases, the PDP [Philadelphia Department of Prisons] must now return to shelter in place for all PDP inmates,” Commissioner Blanche Carney said in a statement. “This means that inmates will only leave their cell for showers, phone calls, and virtual visits with attorneys, and, when it becomes available on Dec. 15, virtual visits with family and loved ones.”

The news raised alarm for lawyers who have been pushing for the courts to resume speedy trials and resolve a backlog of thousands of cases interrupted by the pandemic.

“There will be no inmates brought to the Stout Center until further notice,” Supervising Judge Leon Tucker wrote to judges of the city’s criminal courts, in a Saturday email obtained by The Inquirer.

» READ MORE: A severe coronavirus outbreak in a South Jersey jail has local leaders asking the state to step in

The Philadelphia Department of Prisons’ current case count stands at nearly double the number the city posted publicly on Friday, raising concerns from prisoners-rights groups, who sued in the spring over what they said were inadequate protections. That federal lawsuit led to a partial settlement: The city agreed to provide masks, soap, and cleaning supplies, in addition to at least 45 minutes out of cell each day.

Carney said the PDP has “proactively taken all measures possible to mitigate the transmission of COVID-19 within our facilities.” But the city has pushed back on advocates’ demands for increased testing, arguing the current testing regimen is sufficient.

Now, Su Ming Yeh of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project said, the results appear to confirm her worst fears. “We are very worried and concerned about those numbers jumping up that way.”

About 4,200 people are currently incarcerated in Philadelphia, a number that has climbed despite efforts from defense lawyers, prosecutors, and community bail funds to reduce the jail population during the pandemic.

Tom Innes, director of prison services for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said the Prisons Department confirmed that in-person interviews between clients and attorneys are now suspended until further notice.

Though video visits for lawyers are already available, defense attorneys have complained of weeks-long waits for video consultations with their clients.

For those with loved ones at the jails, though, the concern is their immediate safety.

Loretta Smith said her son Kevin Smith called her Saturday to let her know he’d been moved in the middle of the night, in the rain, from the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility to the Detention Center, with an unknown number of others. She said he did not have COVID-19 when he was locked up, but recently he tested positive.

She doesn’t know how sick he is.

“He don’t want me to be upset,” she said, “so he told me he was OK.”

» READ MORE: Coronavirus testing alone isn’t enough to ensure safety during the holiday season, experts say