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Some Philly jail locks can be easily disabled, staff warn, as violence continues

Philadelphia Department of Prisons staff described a system in disarray, and in which they do not feel safe from either virus or violence.

Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.
Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.Read moreTim Tai / File Photograph

On March 12, two prisoners at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center “breached” their cell doors — and they and their cellmates all dived into a brawl that resulted in minor injuries, according to an internal report obtained by The Inquirer. Staff pepper-sprayed them and returned them to their cells — where one of the men broke out of his cell again, an hour later, to fight a different prisoner.

The lock mechanism was one of many concerns cited by staff, prisoners, and advocates at a heated City Council hearing Monday regarding the state of the city jails in the pandemic. They also warned of deteriorating building conditions, inadequate staffing, scant protections against the spread of the coronavirus, and a lack of contact tracing when staff are infected — all as the jail population has risen to its highest point since the pandemic began.

“The locks haven’t been addressed for years, and they’re still not being addressed,” said one prison staffer, Sgt. David Robinson. “You go to your administrator and say, ‘Listen, these inmates are popping out so easily, I can put a mirror that an inmate buys [at commissary] and swipe it just like a credit card in the door, and the door opens right up.’ But the officers are getting blamed, saying you didn’t check the locking mechanism and you’re going to get a write-up.”

A city spokesperson acknowledged there had been instances where prisoners used a mirror or other object to obstruct locks. “Staff must ensure the door is fully secured, which is part of their job responsibility,” the spokesperson, Deana Gamble, said in an email. She added that mirrors have been removed from commissary and are being confiscated. A capital project to replace locking mechanisms is planned, she said, but described it as routine maintenance.

» READ MORE: COVID-19 outbreak at Philly jails panics staff and prisoners ‘in the eye of the storm’

Hacked locks have become an almost daily nuisance across the three jails that house most of the male population, said Eric Hill, business agent for the Philadelphia Correctional Officers Union, part of AFSCME District Council 33. He said one officer was stabbed multiple times after a prisoner popped his cell lock and assaulted him, though Gamble said the staffer had opened the door.

“My question to the mayor’s office is: Is it human error?” Hill said. “If you’re changing the locks with money supplied by the city, state, and federal government, then it’s not human error.”

Since April, the Philadelphia Prison System has been locked in federal litigation with prisoners represented by lawyers from the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and private firms. A judge has issued orders regarding everything from out-of-cell time (now a minimum of three hours a day, up from a mere 45 minutes) to provisions of cleaning supplies and masks.

Philadelphia Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney told City Council that the prisons, which have confirmed 1,418 COVID-19 cases and four deaths during the course of the pandemic, are running smoothly and have excelled in mitigating the spread of the virus.

She said a key challenge, beyond her control, has been the growing population. “Our average length of stay has significantly increased given the impact of the court-related operations,” she said.

» READ MORE: Federal judge: Jails must relax extreme COVID-19 lockdown for sake of mental health

First Assistant District Attorney Robert Listenbee said Municipal Court leadership has come up with a plan to conduct preliminary hearings at the jails to address that backlog. Those hearings will begin this month, he said.

But staff and a union representative described a system in disarray, and in which they do not feel safe from either virus or violence.

In December, the number of officers working was between 7% and 15% below the official “post plan” for each prison, and the city paid $1.4 million in overtime to fill the gaps. That month, 12 staff members and one prisoner were assaulted, and one man, Luis Nunez, died by suicide. Another prisoner, Walter Dobbins, said in a letter to The Inquirer that Nunez had been in protective custody due to mental health concerns before he died, but that staff were not performing the required rounds. “There was no chance of intervention,” Dobbins said.

Gamble said she could not comment on that death, as the investigation is ongoing. But she denied there is a shortage of staff. “Staffing is adequate, but the city is actively working to hire staff to fill open vacancies, which ... will help address assaults.”

Since August, three people have been killed by their cellmates in the jails. In the last week alone, at least four assaults have been reported, and three people required treatment at hospitals.

“The prisons are not safe when you’re working alone,” Robinson testified. “You get frustrated inmates because we’re short staffed — and when that door finally opens, that inmate is not going back in. He wants to fight.”

» READ MORE: A man died after assault in Philly jail, where violence has surged under pandemic lockdown

Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, said she continues to receive reports of prisoners getting little or no time out of their cells in a day, in violation of the federal court order.

And, she said, adding to the “god awful” conditions is crowding. The population, now at 4,700, is up from a low of 3,725 in April, when defense lawyers, prosecutors, and judges scrambled to empty the jails early in the pandemic.

“The No. 1 thing that will keep incarcerated people safe and staff safe and Philadelphia safe is reducing that population,” she said.