Last week was brutally hot in Philadelphia; heat indexes broke triple digits. For 300 people incarcerated at the Detention Center, the oldest of Philadelphia’s four jails on State Road, they cruelly had to endure this without air-conditioning.
It didn’t have to be that way. This time last year, the dorms of the Detention Center were completely empty.
In a news conference last Tuesday, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart said that the Department of Prisons is at a “tipping point” as currently the city’s jails are “unsafe.” She said that when entering the housing pods of the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, the city’s largest jail, “inmates are screaming, begging to talk to their families, screaming to be let out.”
The jails are also experiencing a wave of violence, with five recent homicides — more than all homicides in the last eight years combined, according to Rhynhart.
The crisis is due to a collision of issues: Social distancing protocols require people to spend almost all of their days in their cells (sometimes violating civil rights), the department is understaffed, and correctional officers continue to call out at high rate. Ninety percent of the people incarcerated are awaiting trial and because of a backlog in court cases, the average length of jail stay has increased from 189 days before the pandemic to 271 as of May.
The conditions are unacceptable — for those incarcerated or correctional staff. To address the crisis, the Department of Prisons, District Attorney’s Office, and the courts must roll out a new emergency release plan.
The framework already exists. Between April 7, 2020, and May 1, 2020, nearly 1,500 people were released, according to an analysis by the Defender Association. Combined with the Philadelphia Police Department COVID-19 policy that reduced the number of arrests, Philadelphia had a historically low number of people in its jails. The analysis found that the overall one-year rearrest rate for those who were released was lower than Philadelphia’s average.
The dramatically smaller inmate population allowed the Philadelphia Department of Prisons to be more flexible. For example, it allowed them to transfer all individuals out of the one dorm that has no air-conditioning for the summer.
Now the Philadelphia jail population is larger than it was before the pandemic. According to the Pennsylvania Prison Society, Philadelphia is unique in that aspect. Nearby Montgomery and Chester Counties, as well as Allegheny County on the other side of the commonwealth, all maintained jail populations at least 20% smaller than February 2020.
To address the current crisis, Rhynhart called on the Kenney administration to create an emergency plan to hire 300 correctional officers. In addition, the Prison Society called on the department to invest in activities, such as tablets with books, in lieu of out-of-cell time. That effort must be coupled with a dramatic reduction of the jail population. The Defender Association analysis estimates that between 750 and 1,100 people currently in jail fit the criteria for release that was used during the pandemic.
Awaiting trial or paying for a probation violation in jail should not be a death sentence, whether by a virus or violence.