As a COVID-19 outbreak emerged in the city’s jail compound on State Road in Northeast Philadelphia over the last week, Rita Wesley grew increasingly alarmed.
First, her son, Charles Wesley, jailed at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, called her in a panic Sunday after being told he had coronavirus. “He said: ‘Mom, they got to do something better in here, all these guys in here have corona. They’re taking them out of here now,’” she recalled. “They came in with the hazmat uniforms, and they told him he had to get off the phone.”
A few days later, Wesley was still waiting to hear from him again when she got a second call — about her cousin, a correctional officer at a different Philadelphia jail, Riverside Correctional Facility. Her cousin, who is 60, was also hospitalized with the coronavirus.
She’s one of a growing chorus of concerned family members who say that, nine months into a pandemic and ensuing civil-rights litigation, the city’s prison system is still failing to keep prisoners or staff safe. In just one week, 228 people locked up at Philadelphia jails were confirmed positive. That brings the total number of known cases to 865 prisoners, and, according to the union representing correctional officers, about 200 staff.
Over the weekend, Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney announced a new “shelter-in-place” protocol, canceling transports to the courthouse and rolling back out-of-cell time. Several prisoners said they get 20 minutes a day, and nothing on weekends.
Lawyers for the city, in court filings, downplayed concerns and said there is a “robust testing protocol in place, that is guided by clinical necessity.” That includes immediate isolation of any COVID-19 cases, followed by quarantine and universal testing of housing units where a case has been identified.
“The recent increase in positive tests are associated with a small number of housing units. There is no outbreak across the facilities and no evidence of transmission between housing units,” they wrote. “However, there does appear to have been transmission between incarcerated individuals on three housing units.”
But both staff and prisoners allege that cases are still going undetected, and that inadequate testing and contact tracing is to blame.
Ed Miranda, a deputy warden at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility who retired Nov. 6, recounted that, on his last day of work, he went around the entire jail, shaking hands and hugging colleagues he had worked with over 38 years of service. That night, he came down with a fever. The next week he tested positive for the coronavirus.
Miranda said some of his contacts were informed, but he was alarmed to learn that others were not. “They said they wait for the health department to tell them before they take it as [fact that] I’m positive.”
A spokesperson for the prisons said the department ”conducts a thorough contact tracing, which includes contacting staff who have had exposure to the infected staff person according to CDC guidelines.” Those exposed are sent home to isolate, pending a negative test.
Meanwhile, some prisoners say signs the virus was spreading in November were ignored.
One, Robert McDowell, has been in administrative custody in Philadelphia since September, after his conviction was reversed and he took a deal that was supposed to make him eligible for immediate parole. First, he must wait to be transferred back to state prison so he can see the parole board, but the next transport is not scheduled until January, a Department of Corrections spokesperson said.
In early November, McDowell began to have trouble breathing and he lost his sense of taste and smell, both COVID-19 symptoms.
“I put in two sick calls and they didn’t offer me no kind of help,” he said. A medical staffer advised him there were 400 patients in the queue ahead of him. A COVID-19 test was not offered. “They told me they had cough syrup on commissary I can buy. But I would have to wait seven days to get it.”
McDowell said he has one mask, which he washes in the sink, and now gets 20 minutes out of cell a day — enough for a shower or phone call but not both. He’s usually locked in the entire weekend.
“I‘m just glad I ain’t dead,” he said. “I still feel like I got breathing issues.”
Contrary to what prisoners allege, the prison spokesperson said they are allowed out of their cell daily, but would not say for how long.
According to documents filed in federal court as part of the ongoing lawsuit filed in April, about 17% of tests conducted inside the jail last week came back positive, compared with 10% positivity in Philadelphia as a whole. The department does not disclose testing data for staff, nor does it require them to be tested.
Among the units listed as quarantined were several areas converted over the summer into housing for women.
Jill McCorkel, a Villanova University professor who runs the Philadelphia Justice Project for Women and Girls, said that is cause for concern, particularly as the jail population has climbed back toward pre-pandemic levels.
“You’re putting women into the eye of the storm if you put them into dormitory-style housing, and the physical structure is filled up and there’s really poor ventilation in that building,” she said. “You have 40 women sharing a unit with walls that don’t go up to the ceiling. It’s a recipe for disaster.”