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Philly prison ‘crisis’ now includes a grand jury investigation and more court-ordered reforms

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office issued a subpoena to the Department of Prisons seeking a raft of documents related to a “major disturbance” that occurred on Aug. 20.

A prison vehicle rolls by Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on State Road in Northeast Philadelphia.
A prison vehicle rolls by Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on State Road in Northeast Philadelphia.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

A Philadelphia grand jury is investigating the city Department of Prisons, according to documents obtained by The Inquirer — increasing scrutiny of what staff and incarcerated people have for months described as a human-rights and public-safety crisis.

The focus and scope of the grand jury inquiry were not immediately clear.

But the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office issued a subpoena to the Department of Prisons, obtained by The Inquirer, seeking documents related to what it termed a “major disturbance” on Aug. 20, when men on three units at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center (PICC) broke out of their cells and began flooding the units and destroying equipment.

During the incident, one man posted video purporting to be from inside the unit, apparently via a contraband cellphone, saying the unrest was a reaction to unhygienic conditions, unanswered grievances, and constant lockdowns. The subpoena seeks video of that incident, as well as inmate and staff rosters, logs of the equipment that may have been used, and an accounting of the damage incurred and grievances generated.

The district attorney, in a letter dated Sept. 10, also ordered prison administrators to preserve all electronic communications dating to Jan. 1, 2019.

The probe comes as a federal judge, in an order filed last week, required the prisons to ramp up hiring, ease pandemic lockdowns, institute staff COVID-19 testing, and move to resume normal operations.

Deana Gamble, a spokesperson for the Department of Prisons and Mayor Jim Kenney, declined to comment on the grand jury inquiry or the judicial order regarding operation of the jails, which house approximately 4,600 people in a compound of five institutions in Northeast Philadelphia. A spokesperson for the district attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

So far this year, at least 14 people have died in city jails, the majority of them by homicide, suicide or drug overdose. Another man was gunned down on prison grounds after an assailant sped through an open gate. That places the city’s rate of deaths in jail at double the national average for 2018, the most recent year for which U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics has published mortality data.

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

The city jails were locked down in the early weeks of the pandemic, which meant just 45 minutes of out-of-cell time. Often, due to staff shortages, incarcerated people did not receive even that. According to the City Controller’s Office, the department is now 479 officers short of the prisons’ “post plan,” which is considered the necessary complement for normal operations.

In January, in response to a federal civil rights lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Berle M. Schiller ordered the jails to provide each incarcerated person with a minimum of three hours out of cell daily. But the jails have fallen short — and in June agreed to avoid a formal contempt finding by accepting a sanction of $125,000 payable to two nonprofit bail funds.

On Sept. 14, Schiller signed a new order requiring that the prisons return to “full pre-COVID-19 operations with normal out-of-cell times” by Jan. 22, 2022. That would mean eight hours per day out of cell and the resumption of in-person visits and programming. Schiller suggested pay increases and accelerated hiring efforts would be necessary to accommodate that. In a separate order, Schiller said any unvaccinated staff must undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, and gave the city until Sept. 20 to develop testing and treatment protocols.

» READ MORE: The parents of the man gunned down after leaving a Philly jail have sued the city and prison administrators

“We have become increasingly concerned about the conditions at the Philadelphia jails, and at this point they’re in crisis,“ said Su Ming Yeh, who heads the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project and represents incarcerated people in the federal lawsuit. “This order is important because it does recognize that out-of-cell time is important for people’s mental and physical health — and that other matters are also important, including continued access to medical care, to family visits, access to meet with lawyers and be brought to court hearings.”

But David Robinson, president of Local 159 of AFSCME District Council 33 representing the correctional officers, questioned the potential impact of the court order. He noted pay disparities compared to city police officers, frequent payroll errors that take weeks to correct, and the continuing problem of COVID-19, which he said “is running rampant right now inside the prisons.”

He said some new cadets are already quitting. “They say they knew they were signing up to work inside a prison, but they didn’t know they were signing up to work under those conditions,” he said.

As for the grand jury inquiry, legal experts said it’s difficult to predict the direction it may take.

Linda Dale Hoffa, a Dilworth Paxson lawyer who was previously a federal prosecutor and a member of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Investigating Grand Jury Task Force, said one possible result would be a presentment recommending the filing of criminal charges. But another possible outcome is simply a report — think, for instance, of the sweeping 2018 grand jury report that accused leaders of six Catholic dioceses across Pennsylvania of covering up decades of child sexual abuse by priests. The grand jury excoriated the church but brought no criminal charges because the statute of limitations had expired.

In the case of the prisons, Hoffa said, a grand jury will likely have to determine whether any misconduct rose to the level of criminality.

“If they didn’t do anything wrong, but they just didn’t do it well, that doesn’t make it criminal,” she said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to whether or not they think they have enough evidence to bring charges.”