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Crowded city jails may get worse

Crime crackdown expected to add to a vexing problem.

As a crackdown on crime continues in Philadelphia, city officials are concerned it will only exacerbate a crisis in city prisons.

Driven, in part, by a growing backlog of criminal cases, the daily jail count on April 19 reached 9,334 - a record in the city prison system's 320 years. And there's fear that a surge in arrests will put the city on a fast track to surpassing 10,000.

The influx of inmates is expensive, draining tax dollars away from recreation programs, pothole repairs, and other general city services.

It is also dangerous, increasing tensions among prisoners and between inmates and the correctional staff.

Expanded and redesigned for 6,433 inmates, Philadelphia's six major jails are bursting at the seams. A lawsuit filed last month contends that more than 2,000 inmates are confined three to a cell, with many sleeping in plastic shells on floors of cells built for only two.

To cope, the city has agreed to transfer 200 prisoners to a renovated private jail in North Philadelphia as of July 15.

By June 1, the city hopes to complete a deal to ship 250 inmates to New Jersey's Passaic County Jail. Beds there are empty because a federal judge began cutting terms of some of Passaic's federal inmates, citing "shameful" conditions such as backed-up toilets and extreme temperatures. Philadelphia officials are looking into current conditions there.

"The additional space will buy us some time," Philadelphia Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla said. "We know this triple-celling has to be relieved."

But it is only a short-term fix to a problem that promises be one of Mayor Nutter's most challenging.

The financial costs alone are staggering.

The prisons department budget has almost doubled since 1997, from $117 million to a projected $230 million next year. To cut costs, the mayor's transition committee on prison reform went so far as to suggest feeding prisoners only two meals a day on weekends.

The city has long struggled with inmate living conditions and overcrowding.

In 2000, Philadelphia settled 30 years' worth of litigation that gave a federal judge oversight of city prisons and that, in 1995, had forced the construction of the city's largest jail, Curran-Fromhold.

The concern now is that conditions are ripe for more judicial intervention.

One thing Nutter is sure of: "We're trying not to build a new prison. They're very expensive."

He has appointed Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety, to lead a new Criminal Justice Advisory Board to coordinate a multiagency response to overcrowding.

Gillison said he was determined to reverse the trend, conscious of the fact that the average daily jail population is 700 shy of 10,000. "I don't want that on my watch," he said.

It will be important, he said, that everyone with a stake - police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, the courts - be involved in the solution.

"If we stay in our individual silos, everybody will just keep pointing the fingers," said Gillison, who plans an initial meeting by July 1.

Similar efforts in years past have not led to real change.

"No one has had the political will to do it," said Leon King, prison commissioner under Mayor John F. Street. "This was an emergency before, and it's an emergency now."

Prison officials allowed a reporter Tuesday to tour the jails, all on State Road in the Northeast.

At the House of Correction, 708 of the 1,606 inmates were tripled up.

A visit to one cell block found three inmates in 20 of the 80 cells. Each cell was the size of a small, narrow bedroom, with a cement floor and white walls with chipped paint. Three feet separated a single bed from a rusted, steel-frame bunk bed.

Inmates jammed the corridor, some filling four rows of benches while watching television, others giving fellow inmates haircuts, reading or playing chess.

After 60 days, those in triple cells have the option of moving, though officials said many choose not to and sign forms saying they wish to stay put.

In the Philadelphia Detention Center, three of the four dorms housed as many as 233 inmates in areas that traditionally held 190, officials said. In one, G Dorm, six socks and three shirts draped one of 15 bunk beds. For 30 inmates in one subsection, there was one working shower and two working toilets.

Most of those in the prisons - about 60 percent - are not convicted; they are simply awaiting trial, unable to raise bail. Most - also about 60 percent - have been accused or convicted of nonviolent crimes.

The factor driving the overcrowding: Inmates are spending more time in prison, according to a 2006 study of the city's jail overcrowding by Temple University researcher John S. Goldkamp.

His detailed look at the prison population between 1996 and 2006 found the average stay for inmates in 2006 was about 90 days - up from 74 days in 2000.

The reason is a growing Municipal Court backlog, largely a result of increased drug arrests. In 1995, there were 7,500 outstanding cases. In 2005, there were 26,944.

The result is that Philadelphia has the highest incarceration rate of the nation's 50 biggest counties, with 596 people in jail for every 100,000 residents, according to a report issued last month by the nonprofit Justice Policy Institute.

"Prisons cannot be a dumping ground for a number of failed systems," Gillison said. "We have to think anew about who should be incarcerated, and how we use our prisons."

The administration is evaluating options that include using satellite technology to electronically track low-risk, nonviolent offenders who can't afford bail of $535 or less, and finding treatment facilities for nearly 800 inmates with serious mental-health issues.

In addition, the General Assembly is on the verge of approving legislation that would result in the transfer of nearly 500 inmates from Philadelphia jails to state facilities. But that wouldn't take full effect for three years.

"The mayor really has to spend some political capital here if he wants to make some changes," said lawyer David Rudovsky, who has led litigation against the city on jail crowding since 1971, including last month's suit.

Beginning with Mayor Frank Rizzo in 1972, Rudovsky said, "every administration comes in and says exactly what Nutter says: 'We know we have a problem, and we'll deal with it.' And they don't."

Rudovsky's doubts are also fueled by the addition of 248 police officers on street patrol, combined with more aggressive policing. "The more cops, the more drug arrests you'll have," he said.

So far, arrests are up. Three times in March and April, arrest numbers surged above 1,600 a week, a level Municipal Court President Judge Louis J. Presenza said he hadn't seen in 26 years on the bench.

How that will affect the prisons remains to be seen. Common sense, however, suggests more inmates at least in the short term.

"We're not entirely sure what's going to happen," said Giorla, the prisons commissioner. "It's all coupled with the success of the crime plan."


Contact staff writer Marcia Gelbart at 215-854-2338 or