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As city jail deaths rise, will reforms help?

Some of the 17 inmates who died in custody this year would not be behind bars if needed reforms were implemented, watchdogs say.

The Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center.
The Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center.Read moreSTEPHANIE AARONSON /

JAMELLA PARKS had been hooked on drugs for nearly three decades before she tried to sneak $68.52 worth of toiletries out of a Logan Rite Aid in January.

It was far from her first arrest: Her record is riddled with crimes, mostly misdemeanors like prostitution and shoplifting, she committed to feed an addiction she couldn't shake.

This time, though, the arrest would be her death sentence.

Although she could have been freed on just $300 cash bail, the 43-year-old North Philly woman instead spent nearly six months behind bars before dying, in custody, of cancer.

Her family doesn't blame her death on the system. "The way we look at it, the way you live is the way you gonna die," said her grandmother Nettie Parks, 77, of North Philly.

Still, they grieve that Parks, described by her grandmother as a snappy dresser skilled at doing hair, spent her last days under lock and key.

"Prison wasn't the best place for her," Nettie Parks said.

That's a sentiment growing louder among reformers who wonder: When Philadelphia's prisons are so jam-packed that inmates have sued for relief, why jail nonviolent misdemeanor offenders at all?

The issue is more timely than ever in a system where inmate deaths have been creeping upward in recent years, even as the city's total prison population has declined:

* Seventeen inmates have died already this year, the most since 2007, when 20 died. This year's dead included one man murdered allegedly by his cellmate, two men who committed suicide, one man whose cause of death remains undetermined and 13 others whose deaths were ruled "natural," caused by health problems or addictions. The decade's toll: 168 inmate deaths since 2005, according to prison records.

*  Meanwhile, the inmate population has fallen from a peak of nearly 10,000 in 2009 to about 8,000 today. Philly still has the highest incarceration rate of the nation's 10 largest cities.

*  Six inmates who died this year - most charged with misdemeanors - could have gotten out of jail for $500 or less, including Parks and another alleged shoplifter, Erin O'Malley, who was held a week on just $100 cash bail, records show.

"The bad luck of the draw is that some people can't afford to pay even low bail. So then they stay there not because we think they're too dangerous to be released or won't show up at trial, but because they can't afford to pay even a low bail. For those people to die [in custody] is really problematic," said attorney David Rudovsky, a leading prison reformer.

Some background

The city's jails were built to house just 6,500. Conditions are so cramped - picture three inmates squeezed into cells meant to hold just one or two, a practice known as "triple-celling" - that reformers like Rudovsky repeatedly have sued the city and won court-ordered remedies to ease crowding.

One reason for the crowding: The system holds on to many pretrial detainees (75 percent of all city inmates) longer than it should.

Pennsylvania's "speedy-trial rule" dictates that people should stand trial within a year of their arrest, and defendants should spend no more than six months in jail before trial.

Yet about 300 pretrial inmates (not charged with murder, a no-bail offense) have been in custody for more than 16 months, Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla said. And five inmates who died in custody this year had been behind bars six months or longer awaiting trial, court records show.

While many factors can cloud a case and keep defendants behind bars - from probation and parole detainers to unprepared or changing lawyers to mental-health evaluations - the end result is the same, watchdogs say.

"It's a whole culture [in which] nobody cares about the individuals who are in prison. People are essentially forgotten when they go into prisons," said Dan Corbett, 29, of Olney, a member of Decarcerate PA who has served time in four city prisons.

If Mary Colella could have scrounged up $250 in cash for bail, she would have been freed soon after she got arrested in late February 2014.

A longtime addict who occasionally sold her body to buy drugs, she had been locked up for two misdemeanor prostitution charges. From her first day there, she was so sick she could hardly walk. Doubled over in pain from kidney stones, dehydration, extreme chills and a spinal epidural abscess, the 37-year-old Kensington woman needed immediate, emergency care.

But a prison health-care worker scheduled her for a routine sick call three days later - and then staffers canceled that appointment, citing too many sick inmates and too few medical workers to treat them.

Just before daybreak five days into her jail stay, Colella collapsed in her cell and died.

A year and a half later, her sisters remain tortured by questions big and small. How much did Mary suffer in those last days? Had she been too sick to call home to tell her family, as she usually did, that she'd been arrested? How could prison staffers let a deathly ill woman languish in pain for nearly a week without intervening?

"I don't really understand, even now, what happened in there," agreed sister Sommer Boccutto, 36, of Cherry Hill. "Why can we not get answers?"

Rudovsky, who represented Boccutto in a wrongful-death lawsuit against prison health-care provider Corizon Health, has one answer: Overcrowding can overburden prison health-care workers, who already are busy treating people whose poor habits, addictions or lack of health care in the community make them a medically vulnerable population.

Taxpayers take the hit

Missteps in treating sick inmates can cost big. The city paid $300,000 in 2013 to settle a wrongful-death case brought by detoxing inmate Mike Brady's family, who claimed that correctional officers ignored Brady's 2011 plea for medical care and instead pepper-sprayed him and otherwise roughed him up after he collapsed. He died later at the hospital.

Boccutto settled her lawsuit in September against Corizon, according to court records. But Boccutto, her sister Sara Colella, Rudovsky and Corizon Health spokeswoman Martha Harbin declined to comment on settlement terms, citing a confidentiality agreement.

Inmate advocates say the uptick in inmate deaths should cause concern.

"A one-year spike [in inmate deaths] doesn't necessarily prove that the medical care [in jail] is becoming significantly worse - but it's certainly a red flag and a warning sign for all health-care administrators, who hopefully are trying to find out why someone died in custody," he said.

And taxpayers should care, too, and weigh the costs of incarceration against the crime, Pennsylvania Prison Society executive director Ann Schwartzman said.

Inmates cost, on average, $115 a day to incarcerate in Philly, Giorla said. That's more than Parks was accused of shoplifting. (The daily cost of incarceration rises big time for chronically ill inmates, as well as new inmates, who endure a barrage of medical diagnostics and other intake screening their first few days behind bars, Giorla added.)

"It just doesn't make sense," Schwartzman said. "There's not enough prison space for people who do need to be there, so we don't need to put in people who have misdemeanor shoplifting charges."

Reforms in motion

Prisons chief Giorla is well-aware of all these trends.

Indeed, some of them aren't new - or even unique to Philadelphia. In a nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world, nearly three-quarters of inmates in all local jails are there for nonviolent traffic, property, drug or public-nuisance offenses, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based nonprofit that advocates for justice policy reform.

With pressure from reformers, and two of the city's six jails long overdue for replacement, Giorla is working on plans to reduce Philly's prison population to 6,000 or lower.

The city last May was among 20 jurisdictions to get a $150,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to figure out ways to shrink its prison population. City officials will submit strategies to the foundation in January, with hopes of securing a further $2 million-a-year, three-year MacArthur grant to implement the plan, Giorla said.

Some likely solutions include diverting minor offenders to community-based drug treatment and rehabilitative programs and restructuring bail guidelines, such as eliminating cash bail for low-risk, minor offenders who can't afford to pay, Giorla said.

"We should revamp the bail system and get these people out," agreed Angus Love, a prison reformer and executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.

Sending more defendants home with electronic monitoring bracelets also is key, Giorla added.

Only 536 people - about half pretrial detainees and the other half probation violators - now are under electronic monitoring, said Marty O'Rourke, spokesman for the 1st Judicial District. The district aims to add an additional 1,200 devices within coming months to help cut the jail population - as well as upgrade from a landline-based technology to a GPS-based system, O'Rourke said.

The long list of law enforcers able to incarcerate - from police, prosecutors and parole/probation supervisors to bail commissioners and judges - also must coordinate better to keep crowding down, Giorla said.

Such changes should help shrink the prison population so that inmates will no longer need to triple-cell or bunk in multipurpose rooms and other spaces not meant for sleeping, Giorla said.

Still, Giorla doesn't expect to close any prisons, as reformers had hoped. And the dilapidated, 88-year-old House of Correction and the 52-year-old Detention Center nearby both still need replacing, he added.

For Mary Colella's sisters, the promised reforms offer little comfort.

"It doesn't change the way our sister was treated. It doesn't change a system that looks at drug addicts as someone they can throw away," Sara Colella said.

Boccutto added: "We should all be digging for answers. If we don't dig, they're just going to keep on treating people this way."

On Twitter: @DanaDiFilippo