Skip navigation
Prisoner Education Guide
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Philadelphia City Jails Under Federal Supervision, Again, Temporarily

by David M. Reutter

A Pennsylvania federal district court has held that the conditions of confinement in the intake units at Philadelphia?s local police districts, the Police Administration Building (PAB), the Philadelphia Prison System (PPS) and the Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF) were unconstitutional due to overcrowding. Following the issuance of a preliminary injunction, the parties agreed to settle a class-action suit challenging the conditions.

For most of the last 35 years, Philadelphia?s jail system has been under state and federal oversight. The current lawsuit ?raised nearly [an] identical claim of overcrowding, resulting in unsafe and unsanitary conditions? as a 1971 suit that settled in 2002 prior to termination under the PLRA, the court found.

In the summer of 2006, the PPS began experiencing severe overcrowding problems. Every summer Philadelphia jails face an increase of three to four percent in the prison population. The 2006 increases were much more dramatic than those that typically occurred over the past fifteen or twenty years. The lawsuit, and subsequent hearing for a preliminary injunction, concerned ?troubling conditions in the intake unit between May and September 2006.?

When arrested in Philadelphia, a person is initially taken to one of seven local police districts or the detention unit of the PAB. Detainees should not be in police custody for more than 24-28 hours, as the police facilities are designed for short-term holding purposes. Those facilities do not have warm water or soap to wash hands or take showers, and do not provide an opportunity for detainees to change clothes.

The intake process begins at CFCF. Initially, detainees are placed in the main holding cell which should contain no more than 25-30 prisoners. They are then individually pulled out to be processed through the booking procedure. As they progress through booking they are placed in 9-by-13 foot cells that contain metal benches to seat 12-15 people; once they complete the process they enter quarantine at PPS within 72 hours of intake. At least, that is how it is supposed to work.

By May 2006 the system was not functioning and prison officials become concerned when the receiving room?s population exceeded 100 detainees.
Despite adding 108 more beds at CFCF, the receiving room population soared to 200. On June 28, 2006, the population of the Philadelphia prison system had reached 8,877 ? or 1,000 over capacity.

Several things happened that day. First, Commissioner of Prisons Leon A. King II wrote to the city judges, telling them ?the jails are full.?
Next, prisoners ?were refusing to eat, staff was refusing to come to work, and the atmosphere was becoming extremely tense.? Because of the overcrowding crisis, Commissioner King instituted a new policy that included a partial moratorium on admissions. The PPS put a hold on the admission of new arrestees held at the PAB and in local police districts.

While the partial moratorium reduced overcrowding in the PPS, it created serious overcrowding problems at the police districts. The week before a preliminary injunction was issued, the City Managing Director ordered the moratorium discontinued. The director was fully aware of the hearing set for the preliminary injunction the following week when he ordered the cessation of the policy on September 11, 2006.

Regardless, the court found ?very little occurred to eliminate the overcrowding problem at the prisons? despite the moratorium, and certified the suit as a class action on September 28, 2006. Pennsylvania District Attorney Lynne Abraham successfully moved to intervene in the case under the intervenor provisions of the PLRA, in opposition to the detainees? motion for a preliminary injunction.

The court detailed the evidence presented at the preliminary injunction hearing and concluded that the ?conditions include the failure to provide beds and bedding, the failure to provide material for personal hygiene including soap, warm water, toothpaste, toothbrushes and shower facilities, unsanitary and unavailable toilet facilities, [and] the failure to provide for the medical needs of detainees?.?

The summer overcrowding caused detainees to spend from three to six days to navigate the jail intake process. The 9-by-13 cells were crammed with up to 35 prisoners at a time. They were ?so crowded that there was not enough room for all of the men to sit down, even if they used the metal benches and every inch of the concrete floor.? As a result, those in intake for ?four or five days were forced to endure long periods of time standing and, if lucky, sitting or lying down overlapping with other men, under a bench, or huddled next to the toilet on the concrete floor.?

No beds were provided, which the court found was unconstitutional. Being forced to sleep on metal benches, concrete floors, overlapped on other prisoners and ?with their heads next to toilets? lasted for some detainees in CFCF and police custody for ten days.

No personal hygiene materials were provided and the men were forced to share unsanitary sinks and toilets, which contained urine and rotten food. Because they feared the toilets would overflow on the very floors they had to sit or sleep on, the prisoners did not flush the toilets.
Guards rarely allowed the use of private toilets. Even when they ended the intake process and were permitted a shower, the prisoners encountered a ?disgusting? shower that was ?slimy? and ?had a stink about it.? They were given ?foam plates from food wrappers as shower shoes.?

In the local police districts, getting something to eat was a cause for celebration. Detainees were only provided ?one cheese sandwich and an 8-ounce container of water every eight to twelve hours.? Eventually the PPS began sending one ?cold package meal? per day, which consisted of a salami sandwich, a sugar cookie, a piece of fruit and a pint of iced tea.? One prisoner testified that he ?lost 15 pounds during a 5-day period in which he was in custody, and suffered dehydration and soreness from sleeping on a concrete floor.?

Detainees were also denied medical care during the intake process. One detainee who was suffering from methadone withdrawal was ignored by guards for at least two to three hours, despite repeated requests for assistance. Several older prisoners who asked for medical assistance were told ?that if it was not life threatening or there was no blood, there would be no assistance.? Another who developed a bleeding sore on an amputated toe was told by guards that ?he should not of gotten himself locked up.?

The court further noted that detainees in the quarantine area were triple-celled in two-man cells. This made it difficult to maintain a three-foot barrier between people while sleeping, which increased the likelihood of transmission of infectious diseases. The court also observed that several prisoners had received injuries such as blood clots from being forced to sleep curled under a bench.

In summary, constitutional violations resulted due to the failure to provide bedding, unsanitary/unavailable toilets, lack of personal hygiene materials, failure to provide medical needs, and fire safety issues related to the overcrowding and lack of fire plans.

The issues presented were not new to the courts, and city officials had no effective solutions to accompany their lack of action to resolve the problems, which were caused by systemic overcrowding. The court found the conditions were inevitable and would recur. Thus, court supervision was required.

In addressing the City?s defenses, the court found that although the plaintiffs were no longer held at the jail, the case fell ?into a narrow exception to the mootness doctrine that was formulated to address short-term harms that would otherwise evade judicial review.?
Additionally, the overcrowded conditions prevented arrestees from seeking counsel before arraignment. The plaintiffs did not have to exhaust administrative remedies under the PLRA because such remedies are not available to those in intake.

The court entered a preliminary injunction holding that conditions at the intake units of the CFCF, PAB and police districts during the summer of 2006 ?violated the constitutional rights of the Plaintiffs and members of the Plaintiff class,? and ordered that detainees be provided with all basic necessities and not be kept in holding cells for more than six hours. The city of Philadelphia was ordered to submit plans to cure the violations permanently. ?Where this case goes from here is entirely up to the City,? the court stated. See: Bowers v. City of Philadelphia, USDC, E.D. PA, (Jan. 25, 2007), 2007 WL 219651.

Subsequently, the preliminary injunction was twice extended by court order, to October 22, 2007. On October 10 the court granted a joint motion to terminate the preliminary injunction after a settlement was reached between the parties. The court found that the ?substantive relief? provided through the settlement would be ?essentially coextensive with that which would be achieved if Plaintiffs were to prevail at a hearing on a contested motion to extend the current injunction.? As part of the settlement, the City agreed to pay approximately $100,000 in total damages to all but one of the plaintiffs, who will go to trial on individual claims. See: Bowers v. City of Philadelphia, USDC, E.D. PA, Case No. 06-CV-3229 (Oct. 10, 2007), 2007 WL 2972556.

A motion for attorney fees in the amount of $75,182.50, filed by the plaintiffs? attorneys as the prevailing party, is pending. Previously the City had paid $250,000 in attorney fees and costs through April 5, 2007 under a negotiated settlement. The detainees were represented by Angus Love and Su Ming Yeh with the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and the law firms of Pepper Hamilton LLP and Kairys, Rudovsky, et al.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal cases

Bowers v. City of Philadelphia

Bowers v. City of Philadelphia


 

Federal Prison Handbook

 



 

Prisoner Education Guide side

 



 

Advertise here

 



 


 

Disciplinary Self-Help Litigation Manual