It has been an especially bitter autumn in Philadelphia’s prisons.
Last month, prison cameras at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in the Northeast recorded a brutal stabbing that overworked and short-staffed guards missed. One incarcerated person has reported going 42 days without a shower. Another said he had been outside only once in six months. Others say cell door locks are broken, that prisons are flooded, freezing, and infested with vermin.
While the number of people held in the city’s prisons is down — thanks largely to a MacArthur Foundation grant that helped fund a series of changes to the way prosecutors handle nonviolent offenders — a corresponding drop in the number of correctional officers and other prison staff has led to dangerous and deteriorating conditions.
According to a June report from City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, the prison system needs to add roughly 400 staff members to adequately serve its population. Because of an exodus of correctional officers, the city moves further away from meeting this goal each month — according to an Inquirer analysis, as much as 30% of all hours worked by staffers are overtime, with some employees working shifts as long as 22 hours.
The result? Dangerous and inhumane conditions for incarcerated people and staff alike. As of October, 14 people have died in Philadelphia prisons so far this year; over the last four years, the system has averaged 11 deaths annually.
In addition to poor physical conditions and a lack of supplies, incarcerated people also report being unable to consistently contact the outside world. Without consistent access to the commissary, or prison store, those who are incarcerated cannot regularly buy stamps or send letters. This means that they cannot reliably talk to the lawyers, partners, and family members whom they rely on to advocate for them outside the walls of their confinement.
Like many crises in the city, the prison situation may have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it had been festering long before. After all, while many Pennsylvania counties are dealing with staffing and coordination issues as a result of the pandemic, Philadelphia’s system is experiencing exceptionally dangerous conditions. While the controller rightly points to a lack of staffing, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, an independent advocacy group for humane prison conditions, also cites a lack of adequate management. This means that basic administrative tasks like keeping track of who has recently been allowed out of their cells and who has not, go undone.
In addition, the pandemic-related slowdown in the courts system has also played a role, with many incarcerated people who might have already been released in normal circumstances facing weeks or months of delays. These delays compound staffing issues by increasing the prison population. They also frustrate incarcerated people, who are stuck in an understaffed and dangerous facility without regular access to basic supplies or the consistent ability to contact the outside world.
The way out of this is not easy. The proposed solutions put forth by Rhynhart and others — such as hiring private contractors (ask SEPTA how that is going), activating the National Guard to assist with staffing, paying to send incarcerated people to other counties, or decreasing the prison population through early releases — may be seen as politically unpalatable if not also logistically challenging.
Nevertheless, this moment requires that city and state officials finally recognize that this is, in fact, a crisis and that some action — no matter how seemingly controversial — is essential before it is too late.
Staffing shortages are not going away any time soon, and decisive steps are needed to stem the tide of resignations. Considering the various options available, Rhynhart may be correct in suggesting that the National Guard be utilized. But activating the National Guard, while it may be necessary, is a short-term solution.
To ensure the long-term viability of our prisons, and to avoid the resurgence of many of these issues, it’s critical that Mayor Jim Kenney, Gov. Tom Wolf, and others heed the advice of the Prison Society and appoint a response coordinator, who would oversee efforts to correct the managerial issues that helped create the current situation.
Without some remedies — and soon — this deadly season for Philadelphia’s prisons is all but certain to needlessly continue.