Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Five takeaways from our investigation of the crisis in Philadelphia jails

How conditions at Philadelphia jails have deteriorated to a full-blown crisis, who may be responsible, and what some say should be done.

Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, in Northeast Philadelphia, part of the Philadelphia jails complex with 36% of its jobs unfilled.
Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, in Northeast Philadelphia, part of the Philadelphia jails complex with 36% of its jobs unfilled.Read moreTim Tai / File Photograph

Rampant violence, delays in medical care, ineffectual oversight, and attempts to cover it all up: These are the themes that emerged during an Inquirer investigation into conditions at the critically short-staffed Philadelphia Department of Prisons.

At least 29 people have died in the Northeast Philadelphia jail complex since the start of the pandemic — a toll 77% higher than the most recently published national jail mortality rate.

“It’s not a jail. It’s a disorganized warehouse,” Pennsylvania Prison Society executive director Claire Shubik-Richards said.

Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney declined an interview. Her office provided written statements acknowledging that conditions were “challenging” but saying many allegations were “inaccurate” or lacked context. The statement said no units have been left unstaffed, nor understaffed.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is the crisis?

The jails, which house 4,300 people in a complex on State Road in Northeast Philadelphia, are 644 correctional officers short, reflecting a 36% vacancy rate. That number has been growing: In the current fiscal year, twice as many people left as were hired. In addition, on average, 20% of those assigned to work don’t show up. Some officers say mandatory overtime, resulting in 16- or 20-hour days, has pushed them to the brink.

The result, according to incarcerated people, staff and observers, is a dangerous and inhumane situation. Prisoners report going days without showers or phone calls, missing meals, pleading fruitlessly for toilet paper and living in filth. The jails, one analysis concluded, are awash in contraband such as homemade weapons in part because searches have fallen by 95% compared with 2019.

There have been repeated riots in which fires were set and property destroyed. Staff use of force has increased dramatically, while pepper spray usage has nearly doubled. There’s a nearly two-week wait for sick calls in part because nurses became afraid to go onto unstaffed cell blocks after fights broke out.

“No one is safe,” said Mark Subher, who was stabbed, punched and stomped during an attack in the jails on a cell block where no officer was present.

» READ MORE: 29 people died in Philly jails in the pandemic. City officials say they did a ‘good job.’

How did we get here?

After a half-century of civil-rights litigation over alleged inhumane conditions and overcrowding, the Philadelphia Department of Prisons appeared to have stabilized before the pandemic. The city, courts, district attorney and defender had collaborated to cut the jail population by more than 40%. And the city closed Philadelphia’s oldest jail, the dungeon-like House of Correction.

But staffing issues were a preexisting condition — causing rolling lockdowns that often meant incarcerated people didn’t get out of their cells on weekends. After Philadelphia jails went into 23-hour-a-day lockdown to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, they never had sufficient staff to restore normal movement. Lawyers sued yet again in April 2020, and Senior U.S. District Judge Berle M. Schiller has repeatedly ordered the city to do better, including providing more out-of-cell time. Instead, the city has twice agreed to pay $125,000 to community bail funds to avoid contempt findings.

“Now, it snowballed,” said David Robinson, president of Local 159 of AFSCME District Council 33, “and they can’t hire fast enough to keep this jail safe anymore.”

Is there a cover-up?

In October, a corrections lieutenant wrote to Mayor James Kenney and Judge Schiller, detailing what she described as critical “human rights” violations being concealed at the jails. She said staff were being instructed to fake logs to make it appear that prisoners were getting the chance to shower and call home. She also said staffing rosters were doctored to make it appear as if the facilities were fully staffed. Afterward, she alleged in a whistleblower lawsuit, she was demoted and transferred.

Visitors to the jails alleged that the jails were staged for their visits. One said prisoners told her bottles of cleaning solution were placed on units before she arrived; it turned out the bottles were empty. Another said the intake areas were emptied before his visit to conceal that the area was routinely overcrowded, potentially delaying important screenings and care. One man who died this year was still in the intake area three days after his arrest, sources said.

And the city has acknowledged only two deaths in news releases since the start of the pandemic. It still does not count in its official death register two people who died in hospitals after being transported from jail, including one who was beaten to death by his cellmate. The family of Trent Mason, who died in a cell in February while other prisoners shouted for help for hours, said no one will provide answers about what happened to him. City officials said it is under investigation.

Who is responsible?

The city officials overseeing the jails, all the way up to Kenney, have defended their handling of the situation, pointing to national correctional staffing challenges as the cause of any issues. City Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr., who chairs the Committee on Public Safety, said prison officials are doing a “good job.”

While city law requires the appointment of a Board of Trustees that will take public comment and issue standards for the prisons, no such board has ever been established. There is an advisory board, but its members disagree about what their role is, which solutions to pursue, and whether problems even exist. The Prison Advisory Board chairman, Rev. Rodney Muhammad, said he had no concerns about the prisons. “What correctional institution is not facing challenges today?” he said.

What’s being done?

After two years of litigation, the city agreed in April to the appointment of an independent monitor and promised to pay unspecified hiring and retention bonuses. To aid recruiting, the city ended a requirement for officer candidates to have a year of city residency before being hired.

And, the city hired John Wetzel, a former Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary, as a consultant. (The city has so far refused to provide a copy of his contract.)

In addition, the city aims to reduce the jail population to below 4,000 by the end of the year, in part by investing in a program to allow public defenders to confer with every defendant before bail is set.

Critics, including Shubik-Richards, say urgent action is still needed, such as temporary staffing or even calling in the National Guard. She noted some improvements on a recent visit, such as access to showers for most incarcerated people. But, she said, “it’s still a crisis.”

About this story
The Inquirer's high-impact journalism is supported in part by The Lenfest Institute and readers like you. Editorial content is created independently of The Inquirer's donors. A listing of Lenfest Institute donors can be found at Gifts to support The Inquirer's high-impact journalism can be made at