For the second time in seven months, Philadelphia has agreed to pay $125,000 to community bail advocates to avoid being found in contempt in a federal lawsuit over claims that prisoners in the city’s jails are being subjected to inhumane and dangerous conditions.
The settlement — part of a broader lawsuit that remains ongoing — was reached last week. The Philadelphia Bail Fund said it plans to use the money later this month “to free as many people as possible” from what it called “deplorable, life-threatening conditions” behind bars.
The payout came after civil rights lawyers, including some with the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, filed a motion in December saying many prisoners were not being provided enough time out of their cells to shower, get medical care, or make phone calls. Some people were not let out of their cells for days at a time, according to the lawsuit, which calls those conditions a violation of the Constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
Those conditions, advocates say, continued even after a federal judge had ordered the city several times to increase the number of hours prisoners were exit cells, according to the lawsuit.
The city responded in court documents that it had been working to manage “an incredibly complex system in the midst of an airbone, viral pandemic,” while also seeking to balance the “tension between getting the incarcerated population out-of-cell-time ... and mitigating the risk of virus transmission.”
Kevin Lessard, a city spokesperson, declined to comment further on the pending litigation.
Last June, the city previously had agreed to pay $125,000 to two bail funds to resolve complaints about lockdown conditions.
Beyond the risk of COVID-19, the jails have been in the midst of a number of overlapping crises since the onset of the pandemic, including severe staff shortages, cell locks that can be easily broken, a series of disturbances on cellblocks, and increased violence.
One man last year was stabbed by three attackers on a cell block without a guard nearby, according to video obtained by The Inquirer. And at least 18 prisoners died in the jails in 2021, including at least three by homicide.
On the staffing shortage, Lessard said the jails were “in the midst of an intensive recruitment/hiring process as we contend with an aggressive labor market,” and that the city hopes to have a large class of cadets begin working later this month.
About 4,500 people are currently in custody in a Philadelphia Department of Prisons facility, according to the latest daily census published online. The majority are people awaiting trial held on bail or detainers.
Lawyers who sued the city said in court documents earlier this month that the conditions recently have only grown worse, with a staff absentee rate on weekends typically around around 40%.
On New Year’s Eve at one jail, the lawyers said, only 10 of 124 corrections officers showed up for work. (Lessard said the staff shortage that day was limited to one shift, and that some employees who did show up had their shifts extended to provide coverage.)
Some prisoners have been denied timely access to medical treatment, the lawyers said, including a man who developed infections in his gunshot wounds after he was incarcerated, and another who was injured in jail and wasn’t taken to a follow-up appointment for weeks, resulting in the partial loss of his eyesight.
In addition, the lawyers say, hundreds of people each week are not being brought to their court hearings due to disarray over quarantine procedures, causing cases to be delayed by weeks or months.
And the lawyers say out-of-cell time remains limited, or in some instances non-existent.
The city has not yet filed a response to those claims. Lawyers for both sides are due back in court to discuss them in March.