The move toward criminal justice reform in recent years has shed light on the darkest corners of our jails and prisons, such as solitary confinement and cash bail. But there are still many areas that still need light — and enlightenment. The latest example is the discovery that most people are being released from Philadelphia’s jails without identification, cash, or other belongings.
According to an Inquirer report by Pranshu Verma, between April 2017 and April 2018, more than 16,000 people were released from Philadelphia’s jails without their personal possessions because the jail’s cashier’s office was closed. That’s 73 percent of all people released who are expected to start their life post-incarceration with no ID, cash or cards, phone, house keys, or any other possession that they might have had on them when they were arrested. They can get two SEPTA tokens and wait for a bus on State Road. The lucky ones are released before 1 a.m. when buses are still operating. Those less fortunate, 1,100 people during that year, are released onto the street even if it’s hours before the buses start operating in the morning.
The guiding principle of releasing people from jail is that no person should be incarcerated for a minute longer than necessary. That means that releases happen around the clock, even though the cashier’s officers have limited hours.
The obvious and simplest answer is to get 24/7 cashier coverage. But the Department of Prisons doesn’t intend to do that; instead, it’s working with the courts on getting signed release orders in real time so that the jail could start processing them earlier and releases won’t be carried into the night. They say they have met some technical difficulties but hope to have a system in place by September.
The department also says it is working with a vendor to install kiosks that can dispense people back their funds. They hope to have the kiosks up and running in the next few months, though they don’t say how much they will cost. Starting this week, the Department of Prisons will have a staffer to help coordinate retrieval at night of noncash possessions.
Considering that it has taken more than a year to figure out how to fax a court order in real time, we can’t help being skeptical that the transition to the new kiosks will be seamless.
The fact that so many people are released without their possessions, and during the hours when public transportation is unavailable, is a testament to an inability to coordinate services. When the criminal justice system and other services operate as parallel and uncoordinated systems, the people who are incarcerated pay the price.
The hours after release from jail are critical, and can be extremely dangerous. For example, people in addiction who are released from incarceration are 130 times more likely to die of an overdose in the days following their release. Philadelphia should be using the moment of release from jail as a point of contact to connect people to services and help with the first steps into reentry — not make those steps as hard as possible.