Philadelphia's prisons are choking on a record number of inmates.

On Aug. 6, the prison population hit 9,123, an all-time high that is more than double the average of 4,000 inmates held in the late 1980s.

It also exceeds by about 1,600 the number of inmates the city's six detention centers were designed to hold.

As a result, the prison system has been pushed to its limits. Cells designed for two inmates now house three. Shortages of correction officers trigger frequent lockdowns - keeping inmates in their cells 23 hours a day.

Lorenzo North, president of the correction officers' union, said the bulging prison population and lack of officers was a recipe for increased inmate assaults on officers and one another - and for potential riots.

"Locked down in a cell, three to a cell, no air-conditioning - how do you think they're going to feel?" North said.

City Solicitor Romulo L. Diaz Jr. said the city was taking various measures, including hiring more correction officers, to alleviate the problem.

He said Philadelphia, as part of a long-term strategy, needs to consider building another prison.

The increase in prison population comes at a time when the city has had a spike in fatal violence. Experts say, however, that the rising inmate count has more to do with a long-term crackdown on drug offenders in the city and tougher prison sentences.

Some small relief may be on the way. State legislation has been devised to reduce overcrowding across Pennsylvania, and part of the change could send at least 700 Philadelphia inmates to state facilities.

Seeking answers to the overcrowding problem, the city commissioned Temple University researchers led by John S. Goldkamp to conduct a yearlong study of the prison system.

The Goldkamp report, issued in November, found that more than half the population were pretrial inmates who could not make bail. "This subpopulation may rank as the most productive area for review and development of population-reduction strategies," according to the report.

University of Pennsylvania law professor David Rudovsky, who has repeatedly taken the city to court over prison conditions, agreed. "On any given day, there are several hundred people you could probably release," he said.

The Goldkamp report also pointed out that 88 percent of inmates serving sentences were nonviolent offenders, mostly doing time for drug convictions. "When the role of drug offenders and nonviolent offenders is so pronounced, there is a sizable pool of offenders who could potentially be candidates for alternative sentencing options not now employed," the report said.

Diaz said the city was looking at alternatives to incarceration, including increased electronic monitoring and daily outpatient drug-treatment programs.

To make room for more inmates in Philadelphia, the city pays facilities outside Philadelphia to house inmates.

The Goldkamp report said 475 inmates were held in other jurisdictions in late 2005. Diaz could not provide a current count, but said the city had increased its outside capacity and would continue to do so.

As a result, in part, the actual population in city-run prisons changed little from last year, Diaz said. On Aug. 13, 2006, the city population was 8,647. On the same date this year, the population was 8,614 - a slight drop.

Those numbers, however, proved to be a strain on the system last summer, when the city began packing inmates in police and prison holding cells with no beds or toilets and no access to showers and medical care.

In response, Rudovsky sued on behalf of 11 inmates, and on Jan. 25, U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick ordered an end to the "unconstitutional conditions" that he witnessed firsthand during tours of the city prisons.

Those conditions have been alleviated, both sides agreed, and Diaz said, "We believe that we're fully in compliance with these constitutional protections."

In contrast to Philadelphia, New York City has dramatically reduced its city jail population while pursuing aggressive policing that has led to historic reductions in crime.

Michael P. Jacobson ran those New York jails when the inmate population began to fall because of management practices. In the early 1990s, New York's jail population peaked at nearly 23,000. Now it is down to around 14,000.

Reflecting New York's success, Jacobson said any city with jail overcrowding problems needs to analyze the efficiency of its criminal justice system. Reducing the time inmates stay in jail, even by a few days, can make a great difference, he said.

"Are there ways to speed up the time to get cases disposed?" he asked, pointing to, as examples, how many times court cases are continued and how quickly plea bargains are achieved.

"It's clear you can get both reduced crime and reduced prison population," said Jacobson, now director of the Vera Institute for Justice, a nonprofit think tank in New York.

Continual lockdowns and triple-celling, he said, is "not the way you want to run a system."

A study released last year by the Urban Institute, a nonprofit based in Washington, showed that of the 106,849 people who were incarcerated in Philadelphia prisons from 1996 to 2003, half of them - 53,621 - had been jailed and released an average of 3.5 times during that period.

Ralph B. Taylor, a Temple University criminologist, said more focus must be put on the after care of inmates so they don't become repeat inhabitants of city prisons.

"The real trick is to get people to think of post-prison care as part of their public-safety dollars," Taylor said.

That money should go to preventing recidivism, not building another prison, Taylor said.

But if the city decides it needs a new prison, Diaz said, any such facility would be years away.

"In the meantime, we have to manage our population efficiently," he said.

Read the Temple University report on the city's prison at http://go.philly.com/prisonreport

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Contact staff writer Robert Moran at 215-854-5983 or bmoran@phillynews.com.