After two years of what corrections officers, prisoners, and advocates have called a crisis of violence and disorder in the Philadelphia jails, City Council members are set to propose a new Prisons Oversight Board with broad investigative powers.
Councilmember Helen Gym said she and three cosponsors would introduce legislation Thursday to seek voters’ approval for the charter change in May 2023. She said the board, modeled on the city’s new Citizens Police Oversight Commission, would provide transparency and accountability at the jails, where at least 29 people have died during the pandemic, including five by homicide.
“The stakes are clear: We have had more deaths in our city prisons than almost any other system in the country,” Gym said. “We do not have information or accountability for it. There is no question that we’re long overdue to have some formal oversight for the Department of Prisons.”
The move comes in response to months of Inquirer reporting on jail conditions and on the inaction of the city’s Prison Advisory Board, as well as an outcry from community members and advocates, Gym said.
The current Prison Advisory Board was established after the city charter was amended in 2014 to create a freestanding city department for the prisons, which house more than 4,000 people awaiting trial or serving short sentences on State Road in Northeast Philadelphia. That charter change also called for establishing a “board of trustees,” though the Advisory Board was created instead.
On May 31, board member Sara Jacobson resigned in protest, later calling the board a “farce” in an op-ed published in The Inquirer.
“The Board’s silence has made it complicit in enabling the ongoing health and safety crisis in the prisons,” Jacobson wrote in her resignation letter to Mayor Jim Kenney and Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney. She added that an effective board would require independent leadership and the clear authority to interview staff and prisoners, access internal records, and issue public reports.
Gym’s plan, cosponsored by Jamie Gauthier, Kendra Brooks, and Isaiah Thomas, provides for subpoena power and a professional staff, funded at 0.5% of the prisons’ annual budget, which this year would have come out to about $1.23 million.
Jacobson, who works as executive director for the Public Defender Association of Pennsylvania, said she believes it would be “a huge upgrade over what we currently have. It calls for action,” she said. “There’s been way too much inaction.”
Claire Shubik-Richards, who heads the Pennsylvania Prison Society, called the draft resolution “a great, strong vision.” But she said further conversation was needed to understand “how this would sit within the city and how this would interplay with existing structures and institutions.”
Gym said City Council members intend to gather feedback over the summer with the goal of finalizing more comprehensive legislation in the fall.
Those working inside the prisons every day would welcome any step toward transparency, according to David Robinson, president of AFSCME District Council 33′s Local 159, which represents correctional officers.
“It’s the difference between what we know is going on and what we speculate,” he said, adding that he’s been denied access to routine incident reports. On June 8, Robinson wrote to Kenney warning that officers’ “stress is at an all-time high,” and demanding Carney’s removal. He said staff are adapting to an alarming “new normal” in which units are left unstaffed or understaffed, leaving those on duty to work in unsafe, “filthy” conditions amid clouds of acrid smoke from the synthetic drug K2.
If established, the oversight board would be just one of several new outside authorities brought in to monitor or course-correct the jails in recent months.
In March, the city announced that former Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel would serve in a consulting capacity. His $329,000, one-year contract, obtained by The Inquirer via a Right-to-Know request, describes that work as assessing staffing and physical plant issues and conducting outreach efforts.
And in May, a federal judge overseeing a class-action lawsuit over alleged unconstitutional jail conditions appointed an outside monitor to assess compliance with orders including to increase out-of-cell time, address health-care backlogs, and provide mental-health care to people in solitary confinement. Cathleen Beltz, an assistant inspector general for Los Angeles County and the monitor in a federal lawsuit over jail conditions there, will provide progress reports every four months.
Gym said that her proposal is a necessary addition.
“I don’t think there’s any question that we are at crisis levels,” she said. “What happens [at the jails] is one of the things that keeps me up at night. I consider prisons to be part of the public safety narrative, and we haven’t seen enough action.”