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Behind Bars and in Danger?

Behind Bars and in Danger?

by Dana DiFilippo, Philadelphia Daily News

If Mike Brady had died in a ditch somewhere, his brother would have understood. If he’d overdosed on a North Philly stoop? Sure, that would have been tragic – but unsurprising, given Brady’s longtime struggle with drug addiction.

So when Brady got arrested on drug charges in May 2011, his brother breathed a small sigh of relief.

“He was doing a lot of risky things, so every time my brother went to jail, I felt like he was in a safer place than on the street,” said Jeremy Brady, 43, of Bensalem. “I figured: He’ll get clean, he’ll get medical care, and we can get back to being a family again.”

But jail turned out to be anything but safe.

Jeremy Brady can’t talk about what happened there; family lawyers signed a confidentiality agreement forbidding the family from discussing the details publicly.

But sources familiar with the incident told the Daily News that Mike Brady, sick from detoxing, went to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility’s infirmary.

Returning to his cell, he felt sick again and asked the correctional officers escorting him to go back to the infirmary. But they refused. And when he collapsed, unable to walk, they pepper-sprayed him and dragged him barely conscious back to the infirmary, where alarmed staffers called 9-1-1, the sources said.

He died at the hospital.

It didn’t take long for Jeremy Brady’s grief about his brother’s death to turn to fury: Prisons officials blamed Mike Brady’s death on a heart problem, and the city Medical Examiner’s Office declared the death “natural,” caused by hypertensive heart disease, records show. Neither mentioned the guards’ role in his death.

“How is one city agency [Medical Examiner’s Office] ruling on another city agency [prisons] not a conflict of interest?” Jeremy Brady said. “I don’t know how they came up with that ruling.”

Jail deaths rising

Brady’s is one of several jail deaths in recent years under circumstances that raise questions about how correctional officers treat Philadelphia’s 8,500 prisoners – and how city officials handle allegations of brutality, especially in cases where excessive force may have contributed to a prisoner’s death.

Use-of-force incidents in the city’s six jails have soared in recent years, jumping more than 50 percent from 528 in 2011 to 800 in 2013, city data show. And with 569 use-of-force incidents reported through August 2014, that year was on pace to exceed 2013, records show.

As the Brady family learned, city jails can be deadly, too. At least 170 prisoners have died in city prisons since 2004. Jail deaths have crept upward in recent years, with 15 in both 2012 and 2013 compared with the decade’s low of eight in 2010, city records show.

Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla says there’s a good reason for the upticks: City officials’ get-tough approach to violent crime, such as jailing more gun offenders and fugitives with open warrants, means the prison population is more violent than ever – and more likely to pick fights with each other and guards.

Prisoner advocates say both jail deaths and brutality incidents have ballooned in Philadelphia because of powder-keg prison conditions like overcrowding, substandard health care, a high number of prisoners with mental health problems, the testosterone-charged culture of prisons and the public’s that’s-just-the-way-it-is attitude toward prison guards tangling with prisoners.

A culture of secrecy ensures those problems don’t get fixed – and proves the need for outside oversight to review both use-of-force incidents and jail deaths, watchdogs say.

“Prisons are just like police departments, where there’s a wall of silence. It’s an institution that’s into brute force and seeing everybody as suspicious,” said Chad Dion Lassiter, a community activist and president of Black Men at Penn.

Lassiter and Stephen Madva both sit on the Philadelphia Prisons System’s board of trustees – but even in that position, neither knew prisoner deaths and use-of-force incidents were rising until the Daily News told them.

“I believe, as a citizen, there should be civilian oversight of fire, police, prisons – all issues of public safety,” said Madva, the trustees’ chairman, whose law firm for years was in-house counsel for the Police Advisory Commission, the civilian-oversight board for the Philadelphia Police Department.

Lawyer Angus Love, who fights for prisoners’ rights as executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, agreed: “Many years ago, there was a routine practice of punching unruly inmates in the face; that’s just the way they dealt with disruptive inmates. That resulted in [litigation and a court order in which] the Pennsylvania Prison Society was appointed to review incidents of excessive force. That went on for years, but like a lot of things that eroded over time, it disappeared. [Court-ordered oversight] should be reinstated.”

Unnatural deaths?

Nearly three-quarters of prisoner deaths in Philadelphia in the past decade were ruled natural, their causes blamed on various medical maladies.

That’s unsurprising because prisoners are a vulnerable population. Many don’t have good health care or habits outside of prison, whether because of poverty, addiction or risky behavior.

Still, health-related prisoner deaths in Philly, at 71 percent, are higher than the national average; illnesses caused 55 percent of local-jail deaths nationally in 2012, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

People like Jeremy Brady and Jenise Davis suspect that’s because some city prisoners’ “natural” deaths weren’t natural at all. They say negligence and even misconduct by correctional officers helped push their loved ones into their graves.

Davis’ husband, Mike, died March 3, 2014, four days after he was jailed for a shooting outside a North Philadelphia nightclub.

Jail officials told Davis her husband died “of natural causes” long before the autopsy was done. But Davis’ relatives suspected mistreatment after seeing him in the morgue; he appeared to have two swollen black eyes, a split lip and bruises on his head and body.

Prison sources told the Daily News that the 396-pound Davis, who couldn’t walk because of a full-leg cast from recent surgery, died after Detention Center guards dragged him facedown to the mental health unit.

Davis’ mother, Diane, took photos of her dead son and shared them with the Daily News. Dr. Cyril Wecht, a forensic pathologist and legal-medical consultant, reviewed the photos for the Daily News last spring and determined they do appear to show superficial bruises and cuts consistent with being dragged.

Yet the Medical Examiner’s Office ruled in mid-June 2014 that Davis died of hypertensive heart disease and declared his death natural.

The autopsy report notes but doesn’t explain three cuts on his face. This is how it describes the circumstances of his death: “Per prison guards, patient had altered mental status and was being aggressive to staff. He locked himself in a room. Prison guards eventually entered and found him unresponsive.”

Giorla declined to discuss Davis’ death or release the prison’s investigation report. Davis’ encounter with guards happened in an area that is not under video surveillance, he added.

Several staffers were disciplined for the incident, Giorla said, although he declined to say how many, who and for what. The case was referred to the District Attorney’s Office for review, but spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson declined to comment on it.

Diane Davis suspects a cover-up and calls her son’s death murder.

“The city people, they’re not going to tell the truth. They know people are out to sue people. They know people want justice. So they cover up things,” she said. “They act like we don’t know no better, like we’re supposed to just let it go. Well, we ain’t letting this go.”

While the Davis family mulls a lawsuit, other families have battled such matters in court.

The city paid out $3.75 million to settle 121 cases involving city prisons between 2010 and 2013, averaging nearly $1 million a year, according to city records.

Mike Brady’s family settled their wrongful-death claim for $300,000 last year, after claiming prison staff showed “negligence and deliberate indifference to a serious medical need,” according to court records.

As part of the settlement, the family’s lawyers signed a confidentiality agreement banning them or the family from discussing details of the incident publicly.

Giorla declined to discuss the case, citing legal concerns. Of Brady’s and Davis’ deaths, he said only: “People died here, and that’s never a desirable result.”

One expert said cities can’t legally require confidentiality where public payouts are concerned.

“The courts have punished agencies for trying to enforce confidentiality clauses because that position is an unreasonable interpretation of the law,” said attorney Melissa Melewsky of the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. “[Public entities] can’t contract away the public’s right to know how their money is being spent or the legal obligations public agencies have agreed to perform as part of a contract.”

The city’s efforts to shield prisons’ inner workings go beyond confidentiality agreements.

City officials refused the Daily News’ request for information about jail deaths, use-of-force complaints and officer discipline for two months, releasing figures only after the newspaper appealed to the state’s Office of Open Records.

Even then, officials refused to reveal whether any use-of-force incidents resulted in disciplinary action, saying they don’t track the results of investigations nor have the time to do so for the Daily News.

City Solicitor Shelley Smith and mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald didn’t respond to a request for comment on this issue.

Watchdogs say city-ordered silence should raise concerns.

“More and more people are being incarcerated, and at least 95 percent come out and rejoin us in our neighborhoods. They’re going to live next door to us and move in down the street,” said Ann Schwartzman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. “So we should know and care about what happens in the prisons, because if you treat inmates like animals, you’re only asking for them to come out [of prison] and act like animals.”

“Right to do it”

Lorenzo North thinks the watchdogs have it all wrong.

North is president of Local 159, the union representing the city’s 1,800 correctional officers.

He blames prisoners for the uptick in use-of-force incidents.

“The inmates are getting more violent. I don’t know if it’s the inmates’ upbringing or whatever, but that’s not the C.O.’s problem. It’s not our job to raise them and figure out what happened in their childhood and all that. Our job is to be correctional officers. Some people on the outside feel like we’re using too much force to defend ourselves, but we have the right to do it,” North said.

Sometimes, North added, using force is unavoidable – such as when officers must break up fights between prisoners. Guards had to break up a fight in November 2014 at the Prison Industrial Correctional Center in which four prisoners, using homemade weapons, got stabbed. Shawn Hawes, a prison spokeswoman, declined to say whether the prisoners will be charged, detail their injuries or release other information about the incident, other than to say the prisoners were between the ages of 24 to 29.

And prisoners often attack officers, sometimes in creative and shocking ways, he said, recounting a recent incident in which a prisoner threw feces into an officer’s face and open mouth.

Hurling human waste at officers – called “gassing” in the industry – has become such a problem, Giorla said, that prisons administrators plan to change food and toiletry containers so that prisoners can’t fill them with feces and urine.

“If you’re an officer, it takes a remarkable amount of control to react to that [peacefully],” Giorla said.

North agreed: “Correctional officers are not there to be hit on by the vile inmates from off these streets. These are the same inmates who are beating on the police officers on the streets. Before they come to prison, they don’t change their attitude.”

Still, Giorla stressed that use-of-force incidents aren’t often the Rodney King-like bloody beatings the public might imagine.

Often, they involve no physical contact at all: Prison administrators several years ago decided officers should use pepper spray as a first resort to restore order, Giorla said. Because prisoners could be armed, have communicable diseases or even just outsize an officer, relying on pepper spray as a first line of defense made more sense – and has resorted in fewer injuries and hospitalizations for both prisoners and officers, he added.

Giorla, though, said he didn’t immediately have numbers to demonstrate that claim, and Hawes later declined to get those numbers for the Daily News.

Still, while guarding prisoners might be a thankless, dangerous job, plenty of prisoners say officers recently have sucker punched, kicked, pepper-sprayed or otherwise attacked them first.

• An officer pepper-sprayed prisoner Jonathan Akubu on September 20, 2014 for allegedly intentionally flooding his Curran-Fromhold cell and banging on his cell door’s glass window. As the officer, James Weisback, led Akubu to the infirmary to have his eyes flushed, video obtained by Akubu’s attorney Guy Sciolla shows the guard suddenly putting the handcuffed prisoner in a headlock and punching him about 15 times in the head and upper chest. The incident report notes that Weisback had a “mental break” after Akubu spat in his face. Weisback and two other officers have been disciplined, Giorla said.

• Officer Tyrone Glover allegedly beat prisoner Marcellus Temple on September 25, 2014 in Curran-Fromhold’s gym, while horrified visitors there for a resource fair watched helplessly. It wasn’t the first time Glover was accused of viciously assaulting a prisoner. On January 9, 2014, Glover punched prisoner John Steckley in the head after the two had an argument in the visiting room. Glover later said Steckley punched him first, but video of the incident, obtained by Steckley’s attorney Kevin Mincey, shows Glover punched Steckley as the prisoner waited, hands at his sides, to leave the visiting room. Steckley, though, was charged with assault, and assault charges are pending against Temple, Giorla said. Glover was also named in a 2005 lawsuit, in which prisoner Donald Lorick said Glover shoved him into a bunk, dislocating his shoulder. Glover and other officers then refused to take him to the infirmary for several hours, laughing at his cries of pain, the lawsuit stated. The case settled for $2,500, city records show.

Without video or outside witnesses, one watchdog said, none of the officers involved would get scrutiny or discipline.

“Without video, it’s a he-said/he-said situation, with guards telling their story on one end and the inmate on the other,” Sciolla said. “Who would believe the inmate without video? Prisoners are obviously on the lowest rung of our society.”

But Giorla insists that excessive force is a rare problem in city prisons, at least nowadays. Brutality lawsuits in past decades resulted in reforms that improved prisoner interactions with officers, he added.

“People have this misconception that it’s like an episode of‘Oz’ here,” Giorla said, referring to the HBO show that portrays prison life as brutal and depraved. “But we’ve come light-years from where we were. Are there exceptions? Yes, there are exceptions. You’re dealing with people dealing with people. It’s not an exact science.”

He added: “We have a legitimate need to operate these facilities in an orderly manner, and sometimes, we can’t take no for an answer.”


This article was originally published by the Philadelphia Daily News ( on November 12, 2014; it is reprinted with permission.


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