The Philadelphia Department of Prisons has agreed to pay $125,000 to the city’s two community-run nonprofit bail funds — while avoiding a formal finding of contempt in a federal lawsuit over what civil rights lawyers said were cruel and draconian lockdown conditions.
That agreement comes four months after a federal judge ordered the department to provide people at least three hours a day out of their cells, reflecting what some experts say is the bare minimum for humane treatment.
Before that, to manage the spread of COVID-19, the city had limited out-of-cell time to 45 minutes a day — and then, as infections spiked citywide, to just 15 minutes a day. But because of short-staffing, some reported going days or even weeks without the chance to shower or make a phone call.
In response to the failure to comply with the court order, lawyers for those incarcerated had initially sought sanctions of $10,000 a day, payable to the Philadelphia Bail Fund and Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, doubling every two weeks. The agreement filed Wednesday averts a hearing on whether to impose such a penalty.
“We felt a one-time payment would serve as both compensation and coercion [to ensure the city’s ongoing compliance],” said Su Ming Yeh, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.
City spokesperson Deana Gamble said the agreement was “in the best interest of the city, taxpayers, and the inmate population” and noted that conditions had been improving for those incarcerated at city jails.
Critics have said the city’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts were undertaken without sufficient regard to other health consequences, including mental health impacts. At least 16 people have died in custody since the pandemic began, including five homicides, one suicide, and at least two drug overdoses. Only one death was listed as secondary to COVID-19.
The correctional officers’ union, Local 159 of AFSCME District Council 33, has contended that staff are no longer able to keep themselves safe or ensure the safety of incarcerated people. “Hundreds of officers have quit, leaving the jails’ staffing levels dangerously low,” said the union’s president, David Robinson.
While the city and the union agree staffing is inadequate, they disagree on the cause. The union attributes it to the administration’s failure to hire new corrections officers in recent years; administrators say the problem is workers failing to show up for shifts.
Robinson said staff are letting incarcerated people out of their cells as instructed, but many are still working alone — one correctional officer to as many as 100 incarcerated people.
According to the settlement agreement filed in court Wednesday, the prisons have until July 12 to expand time out of cell further, to 3½ hours a day for general housing units and 4½ for vaccinated units. The city also agreed to submit a report outlining a plan to return to pre-pandemic operational norms, including the restoration of in-person visits.