AS AN INMATE laborer at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, Chal D. Kennedy Sr. worked in the kitchen, heating and serving meals for nearly 400 inmates and then cleaning up after them.
That meant scrubbing down two giant ovens once or twice a week with a noxious degreaser that kept him coughing and left a sudsy sludge up his arms.
"You look like you just came out from under an automobile," Kennedy, 46, of North Philadelphia, said of the two-hour, two-man cleanups.
For the nearly three years he worked that $1.61-a-day job, prison staff ignored inmates' repeated requests for protective gear or training, he said. And correctional officers frequently forbade Kennedy and other inmates from showering after cleanups, blaming periodic lockdowns that didn't allow for bathing time, he said.
Those charges now are the basis of a federal civil-rights lawsuit Kennedy and 22 other CFCF inmates or former inmates plan to file today against the city, the prison system, Aramark (contracted to manage prison kitchens), Corizon Health Inc. (contracted to provide prison medical services) and various named prison employees.
The plaintiffs claim that chemical contamination from kitchen degreasers and other cleaning supplies caused asthma, skin lesions and other ailments. They demand training and protective gear for inmates on cleaning duty; long-term care for those sickened; and unspecified damages for their pain and suffering.
It could be the first of several lawsuits, because attorney Geoffrey V. Seay said inmates at the city's other five prisons have been similarly exploited.
"From the warden down to the correctional officers, they treat the inmates as less than citizens," Seay said. "Aramark is getting the labor as cheap as it comes; it's almost slave labor. They cut their overhead by not giving them proper gear or training."
Prisons spokeswoman Shawn Hawes and mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald declined to comment, as did a Corizon spokesman.
Aramark attorney Thomas McKenzie couldn't be reached for comment.
Another plaintiff, Clevis Burris, 41, of South Philadelphia, worked in the kitchen for 17 months until he was freed earlier this month when his case was dropped. The degreasers left him with headaches, nosebleeds, dizziness and skin burns, and also worsened his asthma, Burris said.
Such conditions might drive other people to quit. But in prison, a job - even one that left him sick and paid little - was a lifeline.
"They lock you down for any and everything, so most days, you're locked down 14, 15, 16, 17 hours a day. You spend all day locked in a little room with three men. It'll drive you crazy," Burris said. "Your job is the only thing that would get you out of your cell. It was peace of mind."
Inmates who complained too vigorously about the missing protective gear got fired from their jobs, the lawsuit further charges. Those who sought medical treatment were given sinus medication or aspirin, if they were treated at all, Seay added.