After more than two years of escalating staff shortages, prolonged lockdowns, and heightened violence at the Philadelphia jails, the city has pledged in court to address those conditions under the watch of an independent monitor.
In a settlement agreement filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Pennsylvania, the city committed to paying hiring and retention bonuses for correctional officers and increasing incarcerated people’s time out of their cells to at least four hours a day by May 15.
“It’s a significant step forward,” said David Rudovsky, one of a team of civil rights lawyers representing incarcerated people in a class-action lawsuit filed in April 2020. “Both sides agree that it’s best to return the prison systems to normal operations. The agreement provides benchmarks and support in terms of a monitor to get there, and it also provides the possibility of sanctions.”
The agreement, pending approval by Senior U.S. District Judge Berle M. Schiller, proposes to keep the jails under the court’s jurisdiction for two more years.
The majority of the 4,300 people incarcerated at the Northeast Philadelphia jail complex are awaiting trial and have not yet been convicted of their charges.
The Philadelphia Department of Prisons did not admit to any civil rights violations in the agreement. A spokesperson for the department said the settlement will enable all parties to focus on restoring normal operations, provided a COVID-19 resurgence does not get in the way.
However, the department promised to reestablish a mental-health program for people in solitary confinement, and to provide them with at least 30 minutes a day out of their cells. It also agreed to make whole those who had been disciplined in jail without legally required hearings, such as by expunging disciplinary records or releasing them from punitive segregation.
Other commitments included addressing a significant medical care backlog— which, due to staff shortages, had resulted in delays of 13 days, on average, for sick visits, according to testimony by the Department of Prisons medical director, Bruce Herdman. “We’ve just been trying to keep up with the inundation,” he said. Going forward, Herdman said that a $1.4 million “blitz” was planned to address that backlog.
The city also pledged to finish replacing hackable cell locks that had contributed to riots and assaults, and to test and repair emergency call buttons.
In addition, the city said it would consider implementing new rules around phone access, in response to an expert report that found prisoners were left to divide up phone time on their own. “This procedure is ripe for violence and conflict,” retired Nebraska state prison warden Brandon Hansen wrote in his report.
Claire Shubik-Richards, who heads the Pennsylvania Prison Society, said the improvements outlined were essential, particularly to address the needs of those in segregated housing. On a recent visit, she visited a segregated housing unit where out-of-cell time appeared to be a rarity. “They couldn’t remember how often they were getting out of their cells. They were like, ‘I think it’s once a week?’ … These are people who are being subjected to trauma and mental health strain.”
But she warned that, given the loss of staff due to mandatory overtime and unsafe working conditions, the city might not be able to comply with its agreement.
Currently, just 64% of correctional jobs are filled, with 644 positions open. In the last fiscal year, twice as many officers left as were hired.
“All the hiring and retention bonuses in the world won’t make someone want to put their life at risk and also work for 72-plus hours with three hour breaks,” she said. She believes urgent action, such as calling in the National Guard or another temporary staffing source, is necessary to stabilize the jails.
Over the last two years, the city repeatedly failed to keep up with court orders governing out-of-cell time, and twice agreed to pay $125,000 into community bail funds to avoid contempt findings.
David Robinson, president of the correctional officers’ union, Local 159 of AFSCME District Council 33, said the impact of the settlement will hinge in part on whether the promised bonuses provide a substantial pay bump. He had not been informed of any numbers, and the settlement does not specify them.
The union, now in contract arbitration, has advocated lifting the city residency requirement and demanded pay parity with other law enforcement agencies. Correctional officers start at $43,000 — 24% less than Philadelphia police officer recruits and 13% less than new deputy sheriffs.
“If they pay the correctional officers exactly what they should, if they put the right people in place, this could be a better place,” Robinson said.