Hours after an Inquirer investigation revealed that the Philadelphia Department of Prisons released nearly three-quarters of its inmates without their IDs, cash, or phones, its commissioner extended cashier’s office hours to 7 p.m. at four of the city’s five jails.
Of the 11,000 people released without belongings at these four jails, Monday’s change would reduce their ranks by only 1 percentage point, from 72% to 71%, according to an Inquirer analysis of a recent year of jail data.
Two Philadelphia City Council members criticized the move as a half-measure.
Commissioner Blanche Carney was unavailable to be interviewed Tuesday. In a statement, she said: “Safety is our first priority. We have been working with the Courts to accelerate the release process and decrease late night releases, and we will continue to modify our cashier hours at each facility accordingly."
Neither she nor her office replied to an Inquirer question about why cashier’s office hours couldn’t be changed to match prisoner intake hours, which take place 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
They did not reply to a question about female prisoners being released at night without their possessions, in apparent violation of its own policy. The newspaper’s analysis of the data from April 2017 to April 2018 found 273 women were discharged after 1 a.m.
People are set free for different reasons: Some make bail; others have charges dismissed; still others have concluded their sentences.
Experts say the first 72 hours after an inmate is released are critical. Without identification and other possessions, simple things such as buying food, getting prescriptions, and putting a cellphone number down for a job interview or a landlord can prove impossible.
Prior to Monday’s change, cashier’s offices at the four jails — Riverside Correctional Facility, Detention Center, Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Facility, and Alternative and Special Detention — closed at times ranging from 2 to 5 p.m.
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The change “doesn’t help the inmate that gets released at 1 a.m.,” said Councilman Curtis J. Jones Jr., cochair of Council’s Special Committee on Criminal Justice.
“If we have their identification, keys, money or personal effects, we owe it to them to return those things when they leave our facility," Councilwoman Helen Gym said. "We shouldn’t be releasing people late at night when they have to figure out a place to stay or how to reunite with their families.”
Philadelphia’s policy is to release people as soon as orders are signed — regardless of the time of day, said Shawn Hawes, spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Prisons.
On the day an inmate is supposed to be released from jail, the court sends over an official order to prison staff, triggering the start of the discharge process. Then prison officials must verify that conditions needed for release — such as making bail — have been met, Hawes said, which can take time.
Once completed, an order for release can be issued, and the department is legally required to release an inmate as soon as possible, she said.
Legal experts agree that no one should be detained for a minute longer than necessary, and a simple solution exists to return possessions to inmates who get release orders signed at odd hours.
“Open the [cashier] offices 24/7,” said Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.
At Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex, the newly freed are able to pick up their IDs and cash 24 hours a day from a central facility, a policy put in place in 2015.
Besides advocating for extended cashier hours, Jones said he will work with the Department of Prisons on a proposal to provide inmates with more support on release.