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Federal judge: Philly jails must relax extreme COVID-19 lockdown measures for sake of mental health

“The current shelter-in-place policy... keeps incarcerated people in their cells for nearly 24 hours a day," Judge Berle Schiller wrote, calling it harmful to mental and physical health.

Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility is pictured in Northeast Philadelphia.
Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility is pictured in Northeast Philadelphia.Read moreTim Tai / Staff file photo

Since COVID-19 first threatened an outbreak within the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, the time that prisoners are permitted out of their cell has been counted not in hours but precious minutes.

Civil-rights lawyers have fought to guarantee a minimum of 45 minutes a day, and said the prisons frequently failed to deliver even that. But in mid-December, after an outbreak infected at least 150 people, the department announced an even stricter lockdown, allowing for just 15 minutes a day through Jan. 20.

Now, a federal judge has ordered the department to ease that policy.

“The current shelter-in-place policy, implemented by PDP to control the transmission of COVID-19, keeps incarcerated people in their cells for nearly 24 hours a day, and such prolonged confinement is harmful to the mental and physical health of incarcerated individuals,” Berle M. Schiller, senior U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, wrote in an order published late Wednesday.

It was the latest development in a class-action lawsuit filed in April by prisoners represented by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP), and other civil rights lawyers, who have advocated for improved access to cleaning supplies, masks, and testing.

“Across the state, prisons and jails have been relying, I think improperly, on solitary confinement to try to address COVID-19 without looking at some other options that are available to them,” said Su Ming Yeh, executive director of PILP. “In my opinion, Philadelphia prisons are among the most extreme in how they confine people.”

The city, in its filings, said it was implementing only necessary restrictions, “striking a balance between the mental and physical health risks.” Its reports suggest that the outbreak is being brought under control, as the testing positivity rate has sharply declined. Currently, the city counts 51 active COVID-19 cases, among 1,110 since March.

“The goal of shelter-in-place is to minimize the transmission rate, thereby reducing the mortality rate from COVID,” the city’s lawyers wrote. They argued prisoners could only be let out one cell at a time, or they would congregate and spread disease.

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

The city did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Schiller’s order.

According to the court filings, prisoners on 29 cell blocks reported that they were forced to choose between a shower or a phone call due to their limited time out of cell. And people on 36 cell blocks said there were days without any out-of-cell time at all. Some reported going five days in a row without a shower or phone call.

The prisoners’ lawyers said the lockdown had also limited access to mental health care at a time when many were suffering depression and anxiety. They noted that there was a suicide in the jail complex in late December. “Plaintiffs’ counsel received reports via the hotline that this individual, who had a history of mental health disorders, had been complaining to staff about not getting out of his cell and feeling claustrophobic.”

The lawyers for the prison rejected the idea that the death was linked to anything but the man’s history of mental illness.

From March to August 2020, according to the most recent records obtained by The Inquirer under the state Right to Know Law, there were 32 suicide attempts in the prisons. That is more than twice as many attempted suicides as were recorded on average for the same period over the five previous years.

For that same time period, inmate assaults on staff also shot up, from an average of 45 for the last five years, to 65 assaults over the six months in 2020.

In letters to The Inquirer, incarcerated people have expressed despair over the conditions, as well as ongoing court delays that are preventing their cases from being heard.

» READ MORE: Inside Pennsylvania’s prison outbreak, where catching COVID-19 can land you in ‘the hole’

Jesse Leroy Brown, 65, was locked up in October on a detainer — he was on parole for a 2017 gun conviction — but said he had so far not been able to learn why. His docket did not indicate new charges or the filing of a probation or parole violation summary, and no court date is scheduled. During intake, Brown said, he was placed in quarantine with another prisoner who refused COVID-19 testing but was allowed to remain in the cell.

“I feel like there is no hope for me to make it out of here alive,” he wrote. “This could very well be a death sentence for me.”

Another man, Malik Baker, 28, has been in jail since June without even a preliminary hearing.

He wrote that as of December he still did not have access to cleaning supplies, and was forced to sign a form stating he had received soap, though it never arrived.

“It’s so many inmates been sitting eight months, 10 months in jail without seeing a judge due to this pandemic,“ he wrote. “The jails are not safe for us inmates, as they call us. The PDP has failed to keep us protected by this virus. We are still humans.”