When Barry Garrett finally left the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Northeast Philadelphia two weeks ago, he was having trouble breathing and could barely walk more than a few steps at a time.
Garrett, 61, planned to go directly to Einstein Medical Center to get help with his heart condition, he said.
But minutes after his release about 10:30 p.m., Garrett realized that his identification, $80 in cash, and other personal belongings were still locked up in the cashier’s office — the place where prison facilities store personal property of inmates until they are released — and he wouldn’t be able to get them until the next morning when the office reopened.
All he had were the two SEPTA tokens given to him by prison staff.
In his ailing state, Garrett — detained for a drug charge that got dismissed — had to put off getting treatment at the hospital. Instead he took a bus to his home on Fifth Street and Glenwood Avenue in North Philadelphia.
“If I had my money I would have gone straight to the hospital," said Garrett. “It’s all I had.”
Garrett is far from the only person forced to make difficult decisions while being deprived of basic personal belongings right after being released from jail.
According to data obtained and analyzed by The Inquirer, 73% of all inmates released from Philadelphia jails from April 2017 to April 2018 — more than 16,000 prisoners — were discharged after the cashier’s offices had closed, leaving them without any identification, cash, phone or other possessions for hours or even days. The offices are closed on weekends.
Experts say the first 72 hours after an inmate is released are critical. Without identification and other possessions, simple things such as buying food, getting prescriptions, and putting a cell phone number down for a job interview or a landlord can prove impossible.
“You’re almost begging them to get into some kind of trouble,” said Tom Innes, director of prison services for the Defender Association of Philadelphia.
At Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, Philadelphia’s largest jail, the cashier’s office is open 12 hours a day, the longest of any Philadelphia facility. Still, more than 4,600 people, or 57%, were released after the office was closed.
At two facilities — Detention Center and Riverside Correctional Facility — the cashier’s offices close in the early afternoon, at either 2 p.m. or 3 p.m., putting 90% of those released on the street without their IDs or cash, an Inquirer analysis found.
“This is a humanitarian disaster,” said Ann Jacobs, the director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. “You’re screaming to them they don’t matter, you don’t care, and you just expect to have them come back anyway,” she said.
Philadelphia’s policy is to release people as soon as orders are signed — regardless of the time of day, said Shawn Hawes, spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Prisons. “We cannot legally hold anyone beyond a court-ordered release,” she said.
But some experts think the issue is not so cut and dry.
“It doesn’t seem like judges are up at all hours of night signing orders,” said Ruth Shefner, director of the Goldring Reentry Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania.
There’s a fairly predictable order to when releases get signed, she said, but “as far as we can tell, no predictable order to when inmates get out.”
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On the day an inmate is supposed to be released from jail, the court sends over an official order to prison staff, triggering the start of the discharge process. Then prison officials must verify that conditions needed for release — such as making bail — have been met, which can take time, Hawes said.
Once completed, an order for release can be issued, and the department is legally required to release an inmate as soon as possible, she said.
Legal experts agree that no one should be detained for a minute longer than necessary, and a simple solution exists to return possessions to inmates who get release orders signed at odd hours.
“Open the cashier’s office,” said Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
At Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex, the newly freed are able to pick up their IDs and cash 24 hours a day from a central facility, a policy put in place in 2015.
Philadelphia’s jail facilities are clustered on State Road. During a recent early morning visit, that stretch was quiet — except for the few times an hour when a white prison van left the prison compound, turned on its red flashing lights, and dropped off the newly freed at the bus stop across the street.
It was a little after 1 a.m., and the men who got out of the van appeared confused. Two SEPTA buses serve that stop, but not at that hour.
“Nothing’s running,” said one of them. He persuaded two others to join him on a walk up Rhawn Street to see whether there were any other transportation options available.
In fact, according to an Inquirer analysis, about 1,100 newly released inmates from 2017 to 2018 were discharged so late that there was no public transportation running from the prisons.
If inmates get out after buses quit running, “they’re screwed," Innes said.
There are many people who have the best intentions of seeking help when they get out of jail, said Shefner, but when they get out at 1 a.m. they might not want to knock on a family member’s door late at night and instead stay outside, relapse or get into some other trouble, she said.
Additionally, the Department of Prisons has a policy of not releasing females after 1 a.m. because there is no public transportation available, according to Hawes.
Despite the policy, an Inquirer analysis found that, over a recent year, 273 female inmates were released between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. from the Riverside Correctional Facility, Philadelphia’s jail facility for women, a time when no city buses were running.
“These women by design are vulnerable,” Jacobs said. “They are going to be preyed upon at best for sex; at worst it puts their lives in jeopardy."
“We try to discourage it,” said Hawes, referring to women being released late at night, “but we can’t hold them."
The department is not considering extending cashier hours, she said, but it is “committed to continuous improvement and always receptive to reexamining our policies.”
For some newly freed inmates, support comes from an unlikely place.
Alexander Bejleri, 66, a homeless Albanian American, has slept on State Road next to the city’s prison facilities on and off for three years. He’s noticed how confused inmates can be at night just after they get out of jail, he said.
“Some people are sick, or old or don’t speak English and I feel sorry for them," said Bejleri. He tries to help some inmates by letting them borrow his Tracfone to make a call, bum a cigarette, or take a peek at the Route 70 and 84 bus schedules he keeps in his pockets so they can figure out how long they’ll have to wait for the next bus home.
Bejleri says his motto is simple — and it’s something experts note as a foundation for helping inmates back into society: “I want to help.”
Pranshu Verma is a Lenfest Fellow for Investigative Journalism.