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‘We need help’: Video, reports depict violence and ‘riots’ at Philadelphia jails

“We have been warning the city for months,” a Pennsylvania Prison Society representative said, “that the prison is dangerous, unconstitutional in its conditions, and past the boiling point.”

Philadelphia Department of Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney leaves a news conference at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility after a man was shot and killed on prison grounds in March.
Philadelphia Department of Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney leaves a news conference at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility after a man was shot and killed on prison grounds in March.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

A “mass disturbance” that left prison cell blocks out of control for hours. A corrections lieutenant who suffered a head injury when she was assaulted by two men. Fourteen jail deaths this year — the latest on Wednesday involving a schizophrenic man who died by suicide. An officer suspended for excessive force after stomping and kicking two incarcerated men in the head as they lay on the ground.

These incidents, documented in internal records and video obtained by The Inquirer, portray what staff, incarcerated people, and advocates call a dire situation inside the Philadelphia Department of Prisons. They follow months of alarms over rising violence, deteriorating conditions, and declining staffing levels that left some units unstaffed during emergencies.

City officials didn’t dispute the incidents but described them as isolated and said measures are in place to keep facilities safe.

On Wednesday morning, dozens of current and former correctional officers blocked traffic at Fourth and Market Streets to protest what they said are chronically unsafe and mismanaged jails.

“We have been warning the city for months that the prison is dangerous, unconstitutional in its conditions, and past the boiling point,” said Pennsylvania Prison Society executive director Claire Shubik-Richards. “I don’t know what it’s going to take for the Kenney administration and the courts to address it. A federal contempt order wasn’t enough. Five murders wasn’t enough.”

» READ MORE: Philly jails pay $125,000 to bail funds for failures to provide court-ordered out-of-cell time

The city jails’ death rate this year is double the national average for 2018, the most recent year for which U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics mortality data were available.

Shubik-Richards was alarmed — but not, she said, surprised — after reviewing surveillance video obtained by The Inquirer that appears to show staff kicking and punching two incarcerated men last month, striking them with walkie-talkies and stomping on one man’s head.

On July 16, according to an incident report, a prisoner was out of his cell for medication when he picked up the phone to call his wife. An officer told him to hang up, the report said, but he refused and threw a punch.

» READ MORE: Five men killed by cellmates in Philly jails since the start of the pandemic

After that, the video shows, officers began to punch and kick him in the body and head. After a second prisoner tackled one of the officers, the video shows that he was beaten, too, leaving the linoleum floor smeared with blood. Both men were taken to area hospitals, while two staffers were also treated for injuries.

A city spokesperson, Deana Gamble, said in an email that the incident is under investigation. “One staff member was immediately suspended for excessive force and resigned prior to his disciplinary hearing,” she said, adding that “incidents of this nature are referred to the DA’s Office as warranted.”

A spokesperson for District Attorney Larry Krasner declined to comment. No criminal charges have been filed.

David Robinson, president of Local 159 of AFSCME District Council 33, representing Philadelphia correctional officers, said he had not seen the video but defended the former officer as a “hero.” The underlying problem, he said, is the same one that has led to a spike in violence at the jails this year.

“People get burned out. People get tired,” he said. “When you feel as though no one is there to help you ... you’re on your own. We need help.”

The jail complex, which houses about 4,500 people on State Road in Northeast Philadelphia, has been on varying degrees of lockdown since March 2020. That pandemic response was exacerbated by staff shortages that have sometimes meant prisoners could not shower or call home for days at a stretch, fueling tensions.

“Since last summer the population has swelled by 20 percent which has not been matched with needed staff. And conditions continue to decline,” Philadelphia’s acting chief defender, Alan Tauber, said in an email. “We have proven that the population can be safely and responsibly lowered to below 4,000 as proven by the release program of last year. ... We need to return to this initiative immediately.”

About one-sixth of jail staff left during the last fiscal year, and most were not replaced. In June, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart held a news conference to warn that the jails were 382 officers short of the staffing levels needed to safely operate them. Since then, according to city data, that gap has grown to 483 officers.

That shallow staffing pool has been exacerbated by chronic absenteeism by workers who Robinson said are fearful due to unsafe work conditions or exhausted after repeatedly being drafted for mandatory overtime.

Robinson sees similar factors creating the conditions for what happened last Friday at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, where men on several units were able to breach their cells before they were subdued hours later, according to the city. He said that a few hundred men were involved in the incident, which he termed a “riot,” and that several similar disturbances occurred in the jail over the weekend.

According to internal documents, a lieutenant was assaulted by two incarcerated men on Saturday night in one jail, while a fire was set in another. When workers came to extinguish it, they were pelted with an “unknown liquid substance.”

“Even as we speak right now, there are inmates that still haven’t gone in. They’re still roaming around the unit, no officers on the unit, and they’re able to pop out at will,” Robinson said. “You have inmates popping out with ease, as if they just have the keys to the door.”

At the demonstration Wednesday, retired captain Della Holt said the broken locks have been an issue for decades — but what she described as riots last week, along with others in recent months at Riverside Correctional Facility, are unlike anything she saw in 37 years working in the prisons. “I think I’ve seen one, maybe two in my entire career. Now, two back-to-back?”

Gamble described an isolated “disturbance” involving fewer than 50 men and said the assault on a lieutenant the next day was not related to any larger unrest.

She said backup lock mechanisms are being installed to prevent additional breaches, which she said were a result of incarcerated men stuffing debris into the existing locks. A capital project to replace all locks at the jail is about half completed, she said.

Asked how the administration plans to address staff shortages, she pointed to two new classes of cadets, totaling 49 people, set to graduate over the next three months.

That’s a fraction of the 300 new officers that Rhynhart, the city controller, has said are urgently needed to safely operate the jails. Rhynhart and City Councilmember Helen Gym, who joined the demonstration Wednesday, said a more urgent response is needed, describing a visit to the jails this week in which they found the air thick with the smell of the synthetic drug K2.

“This is not just about a crisis. This is a five-alarm emergency,” Gym said.

» READ MORE: City controller: Jails must hire 300 officers immediately to operate safely

As she spoke, prison staff held signs with photos of Commissioner Blanche Carney, calling for her resignation.

A report filed last week in a federal lawsuit on behalf of incarcerated people alleged that staffing issues have resulted in many units being locked down despite a court order mandating three hours of out-of-cell time daily.

According to the filing, staffing shortages have resulted in “delays or outright stoppage” of everything from law library access to medical care, mail delivery, and provision of basic hygiene supplies. People familiar with the situation also described impacts on court operations: On Wednesday, video hearings for 28 people seeking the removal of probation detainers were delayed because there were no prison staff to escort them out of their cells.

On Wednesday, the family of Quincy Day-Harris, a 25-year-old man who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, learned that he had died by suicide after being found unresponsive in the Detention Center last week. Day-Harris had been repeatedly sent by the jail to Norristown State Hospital, most recently for more than six months last year, his father, Michael Harris said.

Harris wonders how this could have happened in a jail where his son’s mental-health history was well-documented. He described visiting his son this week, finding him on life support and unresponsive, but still shackled and heavily guarded.

The scene felt bitterly ironic to him, given the lack of oversight he believes Day-Harris received in jail. “Where was the precautions when you brought him in there?”