by J.D. Schmidt
OVER THE COURSE OF THE LAST TWO and a half years, Philadelphia’s jails appear to be failing on nearly every level, from staffing and security to medical and mental health care, occupational opportunities, library and recreation time, and even the provision of the most basic human needs such as food and sanitation. A series of articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer and related stories in a variety of other news media paint a disturbing picture of deadly violence and torturous conditions in Philadelphia’s municipal prison system.
Part of the blame falls on COVID-19 lockdowns, which exacerbated pre-existing problems in the Philadelphia Department of Prisons (PDP). Deteriorating conditions accelerated by the lockdowns have fueled an exodus of prison guards and other staff, which in turn is creating a snowball effect, causing conditions for prisoners and the remaining staff alike to become increasingly desperate. The situation is compounded by bureaucratic and political stonewalling and denial on the part of city officials, particularly Commissioner of Prisons Blanche Carney and Mayor Jim Kenney (D), according to reporting and analysis by the Inquirer and others.
The crisis that unfolded with the onset of the pandemic in the spring of 2020 has sparked ongoing protests by the families of those incarcerated, as well as public defenders, community members, and prisoners’ rights advocates. It has also caused a series of uprisings by prisoners themselves. Civil rights litigation over dangerous and unhygienic conditions has resulted in the city paying out over $250,000 in partial settlements, with the money going to bail funds working to free as many people as possible from confinement in Philly jails. Litigation and criminal investigations are ongoing in the cases of prisoners murdered in a spike of deadly violence, and a federal court has appointed a special officer to oversee the city’s heel-dragging efforts at reforms meant to address the issues.
The city’s controller has gone on record calling out her fellow officials’ seeming refusal to face the reality of the exploding problems in the jails and take appropriate action. Two years into the sharp downward spiral, the situation is so bad that guards are refusing to go to work, paying others to take on their increasingly unmanageable mandatory overtime shift loads, and quitting en masse. One longtime prison guard even turned coat on the institution that has provided her career and blew the whistle in a public letter to the mayor’s office, providing corroboration from within the ranks of many accusations made by prisoners and their allies of human rights violations, safety hazards, and extreme, seemingly deliberate neglect. Her letter also provided fresh revelations of mismanagement and coverups by prison officials.
This article is an overview of just some of the findings reported by the media and cited by independent organizations such as the Pennsylvania Prison Society. Taken together, these stories paint a picture of a system in collapse, and a municipal bureaucracy engaged in obfuscation and ineptitude while the human beings held in its publicly funded cages suffer and die at an unprecedented rate.
The Brutal Murder
of Armani Faison
LIKE MANY PRETRIAL DETAINEES AT THE jail complex on State Road in northeast Philadelphia, martial artist, yoga practitioner, and former postal worker Armani Faison was already struggling with mental health issues when he was arrested in March 2021 and held on charges that included allegedly violating probation. Three days later, guards at Philly’s Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF) assigned Faison to a cell with another prisoner, Kevin Massey, who only hours before had been accused of attempting to rape his previous cellmate. That night after lights out, Faison screamed for help and banged on his cell door repeatedly over the course of several hours as he was assaulted and fought for his life. Prisoners in other cells on the block banged on doors and shouted for help, as well.
The next morning, Saturday, March 27, 2021, at 7:30 a.m., guards found Faison unresponsive, lying naked in six inches of water on the floor of the cell. In the ensuing investigation, authorities concluded that Massey had set off the sprinkler system in the cell and then crammed clothing under the door in order to flood the space in an effort to obscure DNA evidence. Faison, who was later deemed brutally beaten and sexually assaulted, was pronounced dead shortly after being admitted to Nazareth Hospital. Faison’s family has filed a $20 million lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia, alleging that its prison system is at fault for his death.
“The block to which Mr. Faison was assigned was intentionally left completely unattended by prison staff throughout the night,” the complaint noted, “a decision so shocking that it compelled retired CFCF Warden John Delaney to declare to the Philadelphia Inquirer that at no time should a housing area in any facility within the Philadelphia Department of Prisons be left unmanned for any extended period of time. This not only compromises the health and welfare of the inmates assigned to that area, but it also jeopardizes the safety and security of the facility and places staff in unnecessary risk.’”
Faison’s father, Allrich Jean, announced the federal civil suit in a press conference at his lawyers’ offices in Center City, Philadelphia on February 3, 2022. The Inquirer quotes Jean as stating that “Armani has died a horrible death in the prison system of Philadelphia. He was tortured by an inmate and no one was there to protect him or help him from the inmate. Basically, what happened to Armani, I don’t want to happen to any other person, any other family.” Jean, himself a retired New York state prison guard, told the media that “no one from the city prisons has contacted his family to explain what happened or to offer condolences,” according to the Inquirer. “I do know that when someone is in jail, basically, the prison is responsible for their safety, their health, and their movement. The prison system in Philadelphia failed [Armani] in all ways,” Jean told the newspaper.
The federal court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled on May 23, 2022, that Jean’s negligence claim against the city is barred by state statute, 42 Pa. C.S. § 5551, which specifically grants immunity to governments whose employees are accused of certain crimes, including sexual abuse, unless the victim is under 18. See: Jean v. City of Phila., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91755 (E.D. Pa.).
The case’s remaining claims against the city and its employees at CFCF for violating Faison’s Fourteenth Amendment guarantees remain pending before the Court. The Jean family is represented by attorneys Daniel Purtell and John J. Coyle III of McAndrew Young in Philadelphia, as well as Mark Maguire from the Office of the City Solicitor and Allen W. Rogers of The Rogers Law Firm in Fayetteville, North Carolina. See: Jean v. City of Phila., USDC (E.D. Pa.), Case No. 2:22-cv-00433.
More Murder & Mayhem
ARMANI FAISON’S DEATH IS ONLY ONE OF at least five alleged homicides that have happened at the jail complex on State Road over the last two years, according to the Inquirer.
Frankie Diaz, Jr., 30, was the first of those killed. He was being held pretrial at the Philadelphia Detention Center when another unnamed prisoner allegedly beat him so badly he was left brain-dead. He died of his injuries on August 19, 2020. His family and supporters have held vigils and joined other prisoners’ families in protesting prison conditions and the lack of answers in his killing. Before his slaying, the last murder in a Philadelphia municipal prison happened in 2017. According to an NBC News report on May 12, 2021, all five of the recent deaths resulted from blunt force trauma—like Diaz and Faison, all were beaten to death. Commissioner Carney blamed the deaths on the pent-up frustration of inmates dealing with COVID-19-induced conditions. Still, she went on record saying that the real problem was staff absenteeism: “The jails are safe. The bottom line is you want your staff to report to work. The more staff you have in the facilities, the better.”
The next to be killed was Dale Curbeam, 60, who had been in CFCF just a week on January 15, 2021, when he was allegedly attacked by Mustsafa Rasul, 22, another detainee since charged with Curbeam’s murder.
The most recent death was that of Christopher Hinkle, 37, who was attacked by another detainee at CFCF on April 12, 2021, leaving him to linger in a coma 13 days until he died. He had been jailed on drug charges earlier in the month, unable to post $2,000 bail.
Just before that, Rodney Hargrove, 20, was killed in a drive-by shooting at the prison door. Hargrove had just been released at one o’clock in the morning on March 18, 2021, after posting bail at 10:30 p.m. the night before. He was waiting for a bus across the street from CFCF when a car rolled up. He ran from his pursuers and ended up back on CFCF grounds when the car’s occupants allegedly shot him to death. The incident prompted a review of the jail compound’s external security measures. Prison guard union representatives decried the lack of external cameras on the facility’s main gate. Commissioner Carney, while bemoaning the fact that “this murder erodes public trust in the safety and operations of PDP facilities,” blamed the shooting in part on guards having raised the automatic arm that blocks vehicles from driving up to the prison’s main gate. Her statement prompted a storm of public outcry in which the prison guards’ union called for her resignation.
PRISON GUARDS AGAIN CALLED FOR CARney’s resignation when they took to the streets on August 25, 2021, blocking traffic in protest of the dangerous conditions in Philly’s prisons after a week of violent incidents. According to an August 26 story based on internal reports and video evidence obtained by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the incidents included two mass uprisings the preceding weekend in which prisoners broke out of their cells, set fires, and pelted guards with an “unknown liquid” at Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center (PICC) on August 20, 2021. A similar uprising had occurred earlier in the summer at Riverside Correctional Facility (RCF).
The uprising at PICC prompted the District Attorney (DA) to convene a grand jury investigation into PDP, the Inquirer reported on September 20, 2021. While the exact focus of the grand jury’s mission was unclear, the report noted that the DA’s office issued a subpoena seeking staff rosters, equipment logs, accounting of damages and grievances generated, digital communications, and video evidence, including a video apparently shot on a contraband cell phone and posted online by prisoners involved in the uprising. The video is purported to show that the uprising “was a reaction to unhygienic conditions, unanswered grievances, and constant lockdowns,” according to the Inquirer.
In addition to these prisoner rebellions, other violence cited by the Inquirer included an alleged assault on a guard lieutenant that left the woman with a head injury, and an incident on July 16, 2021, in which a guard was immediately suspended for kicking and stomping two prisoners while they were prone on the floor. The Inquirer posted a full-length video of that incident on its website, which occurred after a scuffle with a prisoner, desperate to speak to his wife, who tried to make a phone call while out of his cell to receive medication. In a follow-up story from October 2021, the Inquirer reported that the suspended jailer and another guard were both charged with multiple crimes—including aggravated assault and official oppression—in the attack on the two men.
Another story that month detailed two more uprisings that occurred at PICC over the course of three days from October 11 to 13, 2021. In those incidents, around 90 prisoners allegedly broke out of their cells, started fires and floods, armed themselves with sticks and improvised swords made from plastic container lids, hurling feces at guards as the prisoners took over a housing unit and barricaded themselves inside. Guards responded with bolt-cutters, sledgehammers, and flash-bang grenades, breaking down the barricades and attacking prisoners with enough force to send at least three men to area hospitals. The Inquirer’s story notes two of the root causes of the mayhem: “In recent months, prisoners’ frustration over lack of access to phone calls or showers...has repeatedly led to violent and destructive incidents at the jail.”
An Inquirer article from November 4, 2021, describes a potentially fatal incident from September 30 of that year, in which a group of prisoners in an apparently un-monitored housing unit at CFCF slipped out of their cells and attacked another prisoner, stabbing him repeatedly in the head, neck, and shoulders. The injured man staggered back into his cell while other prisoners jumped into action to clean up the blood left behind on the floor. The victim was eventually able to access medical treatment and survived. The incident, of which the Inquirer also managed to obtain surveillance footage, further highlights the security risks inherent in the combination of short-staffing and malfunctioning locking systems, both of which are now chronic problems in Philadelphia’s jails.
Cheap Locks, Incalculable Risk
ON TOP OF BEING TRAPPED IN THEIR CELLS for 22 to 23 hours a day—and sometimes for 24 hours a day—for weeks and months on end, prisoners reported that one of the most disturbing developments is the jails’ decision to “fix” the long-standing problem of broken and malfunctioning locks in at least two of the facilities, PICC and RCF. How? By attaching sliding bolt locks to the exteriors of cell doors. This means that guards have no way to open cells other than by walking the line of doors and manually sliding each bolt. This “solution” represents a terrifying, life and death risk to prisoners’ health and safety, as they are left vulnerable to violence while guards—the few that are left, that is, since all these institutions are notorious for being chronically under-staffed—are tied up with this cumbersome locking system.
These sliding-bolt locks were one of the most egregious violations listed in a whistleblower letter that PDP guard Sholonda Gregory sent to the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office on October 5, 2021. Along with a laundry list of other violations and problems that align with those detailed by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, she said that PDP “drastically cut the budget for regular prisons operations and diverted funds to Corizon Health, GD Correctional Food Services, U.S. Facilities, Centurion Detention Health Services and other outside vendors at the expense of investments in the staff and infrastructure needed to assure good order and humane conditions at prisons.”
Short-staffing left prisoners in lockdown “for outrageous periods of time,” she continued, where they “were unable to shower” and “unable to exercise,” also depriving them of law library access. As a result, “[p]rison jobs were not worked” and prisoners “were unable to communicate with their families,” so they “became unruly and violent” and “learned how to break locks on their cells and wreaked havoc on the prisons [sic] floor.”
Gregory’s letter included descriptions of cells whose broken locks had been replaced with deadbolts to keep the inmates from popping out of their cells. “Of course, it is a Fire Hazard, installing latches on cell doors,” she pointed out. “In case of a State of Emergency, fire, Major Disturbance, Power Outage they would have to be open [sic] or closed individually. When the electronic [console] is working properly there are two buttons that are pressed simultaneously which will open all cell doors for either the inmates to step out of their cells or to step in their cells...by installing latches Correctional Staff...will not be able to use the Release buttons. We are not trained for this new installed equipment besides, [it is] Inhumane treatment of Inmates.”
After she sent the letter, the guard was demoted and transferred. With the aid of attorney Timothy P. Creech of Creech & Creech in Philadelphia, she has filed suit in the federal court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania alleging she was the victim of unlawful retaliation. See: Gregory v. City of Philadelphia, USDC (E.D. Pa.), Case No. 2:22-cv-00929.
A Humanitarian Crisis
ARMANI FAISON’S STORY, ALONG WITH Rodney Hargrove, Dale Curbeam, Christopher Hinkle and Frankie Diaz, Jr.’s, are just five of 29 tales of suffering to the point of death in Philadelphia jails since severely restrictive lockdowns were imposed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The majority of those 29 deaths appear not to be directly attributable to the disease. The list of deaths in 2021 includes five murders, three suicides, and ten fatalities attributed to drug overdose. According to Philadelphia City Controller Rebecca Rynhart, five murders in the two years of the pandemic are more homicides than Philly’s jails saw in the preceding eight years combined. A report by the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 26, 2021, notes the Philadelphia municipal prison system’s death rate is more than twice the national average for 2018, the most recent year for which U.S. Department of Justice statistics are available.
An article in Juris Magazine on November 15, 2021, details some of the many problems that have come to light in Philadelphia’s prisons in the last two years. In that report, the Pennsylvania Prison Society’s Noah Barth, who along with fellow staffers and volunteers had personally inspected four of the five Philadelphia jail facilities in response to complaints from prisoners and families, cited multiple compounding issues faced by people incarcerated there.
“People we spoke to across all the facilities talked about a lack of staffing on the weekends and evenings, which results in people not being let out of cells and not having anyone to respond if there is an emergency,” Barth said. “We have received at least half a dozen reports if not more of people having medical emergencies that are not being responded to by staff. People are waiting months to get fresh laundry. There is a lack of access to cleaning supplies. There is a complete dearth of in-cell activities. There is no access to the library and severely limited access to the law library, which is both an issue in terms of productivity and legality. There are rules around access to the law library and they are not being followed.”
The Pennsylvania Prison Society, a nonprofit which has its roots in 18th-century prison reform efforts, engages in material support to prisoners, their families, and formerly incarcerated individuals, providing advocacy on their behalf. The organization has longstanding and somewhat unique access to both facilities and prisoners themselves through its prison monitoring program. Its leadership, staff, and volunteers have spoken out repeatedly and taken what limited action they could over the last two and a half years to try to raise public awareness of the situation and push Philly officials to make desperately needed changes in the jails. In addition to speaking with prisoners in the standard housing blocks, Barth was also able to speak directly with those trapped in solitary confinement with no end in sight due to the combination of COVID-19 lockdowns and neglect, allegedly attributed to cascading logistical delays caused by short-staffing on the part of prison authorities. Per Juris Magazine, “Mr. Barth spoke to about ten men in solitary confinement who reported that they had not received hearings or written charges,” despite being guaranteed a hearing within seven days under Pennsylvania law.
The overuse of solitary confinement was also a topic in Gregory’s whistleblower letter to the mayor. Of 4,464 prisoners and detainees held by PDP on September 28, 2021, she noted that 542—over 10%—were being held “in Solitary Confinement throughout the system,” including 364 at PICC, representing over one-third of its 961 total prisoners and detainees. That number also represented a big increase from the 209 held in solitary at the prison prior to the riot on August 20, 2021.
Prisoners and Families Speak Out
ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT PIECES IN the Inquirer’s series on the jail crisis is an op-ed written by former prisoner and bail fund organizer Lucian Martin published on December 2, 2021. In the essay, Martin describes being held in an overcrowded CFCF intake cell with 12 other people for two days upon arriving at the jail. From there, his four-month stay included weeks in which he and other prisoners in his housing block were often confined to their cells 24 hours a day for multiple days at a time.
At one point, he was stuck in his cell for 120 hours straight. “That’s five days without being allowed to leave my cell, without the chance to shower, to socialize, or to speak with my children and loved ones,” he wrote. Martin added that he was never once issued a change of clothing, or new towels, wash cloths, or bed linens during his entire four months inside. Another hygiene violation: Only one roll of toilet paper was issued for each two-person cell per week—not nearly enough for normal needs, resulting in prisoners being forced to use personal items to clean themselves.
Another violation cited by Martin is a severe lack of access to medical treatment. At one point, Martin’s cellmate suffered a seizure, but due to a lack of guards on the block, medical staff did not reach the man for over 45 minutes. Another prisoner on Martin’s block had a seizure overnight, and despite his cellmate banging on the door and pleading for help for him, no guards showed up until the next morning, at which point the man had already become one of the 29 fatalities in the Philly jails’ ongoing crisis.
Martin stated: “It is difficult for me to think about the filthy and degrading conditions I endured for four months, but I feel it is my duty to share my story on behalf of those still incarcerated. I want to open the public’s eyes to what’s taking place within those walls...These stories only touch the surface of what I witnessed in the Philadelphia jails. The treatment we experienced was nearly unbearable and the traumatic events I witnessed will stay with me forever.”
In response to the cries for help from their loved ones inside, the families of people incarcerated in Philadelphia’s jails have been standing up and speaking out publicly as well. An ABC News story on September 17, 2021, quoted Quanda Guyton, who had two sons and a nephew awaiting trial in Philly jails at the time. She said that one of her sons told her he counted 97 prisoners for every guard. With prisoners locked down 22-23 hours a day, the lack of access to visitation and phone calls compounded by filthy, unhygienic living conditions caused prisoners’ frustrations to mount, with little or no outlet or relief other apparently than smoking so-called “K-2” synthetic marijuana, which the ABC News report alleged was readily available in the prisons, leading to thick clouds of smoke at times in the living quarters. Guyton expressed disbelief at the lack of action on the part of prison officials to address the problems. “Wherever they put their grievances at, there’s so many they’re flowing out the box. What is going on in there?” Guyton asked.
According to an Inquirer article from November 16, 2021, there were 18 prisoners who contributed 70 pages of affidavits filed in an ongoing class-action lawsuit over conditions at the jail, detailing a list of complaints that mirrored those of Martin and Guyton’s sons and nephew. In those affidavits, prisoners described going 42 days without a shower, dealing with foot-deep floods of backed-up sewage in their cells, and emergency call buttons that malfunctioned or were simply ignored by staff. Many reported a near-total lack of access to outdoor time. One man stated that he had been outdoors exactly once in six months.
Incarcerated people also detailed significant deterioration of the physical facilities themselves, with one describing Philly’s oldest facility, the Detention Center, as “decomposing, with water leaks everywhere and what looks like black mold growing on the walls.” Others testified to serious issues around access to food, with meals delivered late or not at all, and severely limited access to the commissary. Prisoners also testified to their significant, even dangerous weight loss, combined with little to no access to medical care. A man with untreated facial injuries from a gunshot wound described being unable to eat, so he tried to drink so much water that he could fall asleep feeling full, despite the lack of food.
Over the last two and a half years there have been regular street demonstrations by prisoners’ families and allies, beginning with a drive-by rally at Philadelphia City Hall on March 30, 2020, protesting COVID-19 conditions in the jails and demanding the release of more prisoners in response to the pandemic. Several Inquirer articles from the summer of 2021 cited a march and rally on State Road outside CFCF on April 30 of that year, part of an ongoing series of protests held every Friday by families of those incarcerated there.
At a demonstration by Philly’s Human Rights Coalition (HRC) and other advocates outside a city council meeting on May 11, 2022, KYW Newsradio recorded HRC activist John Thompson protesting the inhumane, unsafe and unsanitary conditions faced by prisoners. “The rats and the roaches and the mice, just running—we’re talking about during the day, we’re not even talking about at night—running all through the prison,” Thompson said. Inside the meeting, Commissioner Carney was addressing councilors on budget issues. She claimed that despite staffing shortages and other problems, her staff was making do, and that what was happening in Philly was part of a nationwide problem: “In the cases where there is just no staff or a small number, we have staff touring both units,” she said. “And that is nationwide. This is not unique to Philadelphia.”
THE PROBLEM OF PRISONS AND JAILS being overcrowded and under-staffed is indeed nationwide. But in Philadelphia it has become even more dire as a result of the prison administration’s policy choices—or lack thereof—in reaction to COVID-19. Before 2020, Philadelphia had been on track to reform its municipal prison system in a variety of ways, thanks in part to multiple MacArthur Foundation grants aimed at addressing racial disparities within the justice system and reducing the overall population in the jails.
From 2018 to early 2020, just before the pandemic exploded across the U.S., Philly had experimented with an innovative bail advocacy program in which the public defender’s office employed social workers who intervened immediately after arrest to help detainees make phone calls, arrange legal counsel, and access services such as drug treatment. The program was showing well-documented, promising results, including reducing recidivism and racial disparities in bail determinations and case outcomes. It was also reducing the number of people who ended up in jail by giving bail magistrates more information to work with and more time to consider the specifics of individual arrestees’ cases, resulting in more detainees being released. But in early 2020 the program was canceled due to alleged police harassment of the program’s two “bail advocates.”
“It was emotionally and verbally abusive, and it was what our clients experienced as well,” one of the advocates, Maggie Dekker, told the Inquirer.
The other, Evan Dubchansky, agreed, saying that anytime he opened the door of the converted holding cell in the Philadelphia Police Department’s “roundhouse” headquarters that served as his office, “The officers would yell at me to ‘go back into my cell.’”
Then came the pandemic. Under pressure from the public and health officials, the DA, courts, and prison management worked together to lower the prison population. NBC News later reported in May 2021 that “[a]t the start of the pandemic, the jail inmate population was 4,662.” Then after “City officials started releasing inmates deemed to be non-violent, as a way to keep the jails safe from COVID-19,” by April 2020 “the jail population dropped to 3,725.”
“But it quickly rose back up,” the reported concluded.
By early 2021, Philadelphia prison population numbers had begun to swing sharply upward again. As NBC News noted then, “The jail population has stayed at a steady 4,700 this spring. All while the number of prison employees continues to drop.”
As is the case in so many jails across Incarceration Nation, more than 90% of those in Philly jails are in pretrial detention. Over the course of the last two years, more and more prisoners have ended up stuck for ever longer periods of time in PDP’s bogged-down system. As of May 2021, the average prisoner was trapped in its cages for 271 days, compared to 189 days in March 2020, according to the Inquirer.
By the summer of 2021, the jails held around 4,600 people, far fewer than the 8,500 held just a few years earlier in 2015. That brought the city’s jail population below design capacity, according to statistics from Prison Policy Initiative. But as that same nonprofit noted, “jail capacity is less straightforward than it might seem,” a function not only of how many beds but where they are located, and Philly jails have pressed administrative areas and even a gym into dormitory use. David Robinson, President of the union that represents guards, accused PDP of crowding as many as 100 detainees into intake areas, which are not designed for overnight stays, and then shuffling out all but a half-dozen before pre-scheduled tours of the facility.
“It’s a game they play, it’s like, hide ‘em,” he said.
More important still is the simple fact that jail beds aren’t meant to hold someone that there isn’t a guard to watch. In a press conference on June 29, 2021, City Controller Rhynhart, backed by City Council members, Robinson, and members of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, called on the mayor and PDP to take immediate action to address the crisis caused by overpopulation and under-staffing. She described the prison system as at a “tipping point,” based on testimony from prison guards, her office’s analysis of operations, staffing, and reported levels of violence, and her own observations during a visit to facilities the previous week.
THE INQUIRER QUOTED RHYNHART DEscribing what she experienced: “When you go into the housing pods at CFCF, inmates are screaming, begging to talk to their families, screaming to be let out.” Prison workers “are scared for their lives,” she added. The controller put the root cause of the problem down to under-staffing. As noted by the Inquirer, “The department was already short-staffed going into the pandemic. Then, about one in six staffers left during the next fiscal year. That left the department 382 people short of the 1,884 needed to fully staff the jails, according to the department’s official post plan.”
The situation only got worse as the pandemic persisted. By April 2022, the Inquirer reported that the guard shortage had “climbed to 644 officers—36% short of a full complement—exacerbated by absenteeism, averaging 20% of staff per shift, but sometimes topping 90%.” And only 22 guard cadets completed their training as of the summer of 2021.
“They need to hire over 300 correctional officers now,” Rhynhart told the Inquirer, which noted that Commissioner Carney disagreed, however, blaming the problem on guards for “failing to show up for shifts.” But Rhynhart, the Inquirer noted, “emphasized that staff call-outs did not account for the short-staffing,” adding “that addressing attendance would be impossible until more workers were available to ensure a safe working environment.”
“There’s a real humanitarian disaster going on,” Rhynhart stated. “There’s a responsibility that the mayor’s administration should be exercising.”
However, according to the Inquirer, the mayor simply punted back to his Commissioner of Prisons, with a spokesman saying Mayor Kenney declined an interview request but “supports Carney’s ‘tireless efforts’ despite ‘immense logistical and operational challenges presented over the past 22 or so months.’”
An ABC News story that followed on September 17, 2021, quoted one of the many guards who left PDP over the course of the pandemic, retired captain Adela Holt: “There’s no sugar-coating it. I’m scared someone [on the guard staff] is going to be murdered in there.”
Holt blamed the staffing problem and the associated increase in violence on prison officials’ refusal to face reality and listen to prisoners and guards’ grievances and concerns. “Open up the line of communication with the inmates, open up the line of communication with the staff, and I’ll guarantee you you’ll see a great drop in assaults,” Holt said. “The staff coming to work, they feel like they’re not being appreciated.” Yet despite demands from incarcerated people and their families, other public officials, and the courts, the department seems unwilling or unable to step up hiring of new staff to meet the need.
Hiring those new guards and retaining them does appear to be a tremendous challenge, due to the conditions they encounter on the job. A follow-up article on the staffing shortage in the Inquirer on January 4, 2022, quoted Robinson—officially President of the American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Local 159, District Council 33—describing the pressure even the newest recruits find themselves under: “I talked two cadets into not quitting last week because they had to stay 20 hours, they didn’t get a lunch relief, and they’re like, ‘This is pure insanity! Who works like this?’”
In addition to the stressful and exhausting working conditions, guards also allegedly face constant pressure from management, coupled with threats of disciplinary action if they don’t toe the line, no matter how extreme or brutal and degrading the conditions they encounter and are made party to. For that same Inquirer article, Pennsylvania Prison Society Executive Director Claire Shubik-Richards described how her organization has received increasing numbers of anonymous reports from Philly prison guards “concerned about their own safety, concerned about the safety of incarcerated people, wanting us to know about the depths of the mismanagement.”
By January 4, 2022, the Inquirer’s Samantha Melamed was laying out the situation from the guards’ perspective in stark detail, describing it as a “mounting mental health and public safety crisis.” The story quotes former guard Heather Malloy describing how stress, fear, and burnout led her to pay a colleague $20 per shift to cover her increasing mandatory overtime assignments. Malloy, a career prison guard with 18 years on the job, finally decided to quit when she realized the exhaustion and stress were driving her to drink in ways that caused her family to become concerned. Her husband, a career guard with PDP as well, quit for similar reasons. The Inquirer notes they joined an exodus of 25 guards per month, on average, adding up to about 500 who had left their jobs just over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Weeks and months of 16-to-20-hour shifts, stress and fear over violence, a disintegrating command structure, and mismanagement that includes what amounts to wage theft, have added up to a nearly unbearable weight on the staff who remain, according to union representatives. Guards have reported becoming entangled with Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services after finding themselves unable to pick their children up from school due to being stuck at work on mandatory overtime. Problems with a change in the city’s payroll system have resulted in many guards not receiving full paychecks for months, leaving some facing dire economic consequences including having their vehicles repossessed, the union says.
GUARDS, SEVERAL OF WHOM SPOKE ON condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions from management and formerly incarcerated people, also reported becoming physically and mentally ill due to high levels of stress and exhaustion, the Inquirer related. One guard described how mandatory 20-hour shifts left her sleep-deprived, anxious and sick. But it was the conditions that she saw prisoners suffering, and management’s efforts to cover up the depths of the crisis, that finally caused her to walk away because “she could no longer be party to what she termed human rights violations: incarcerated people pleading for toilet paper when she had none to give, or sliding her notes that they were being assaulted in their cells when she had no one to call for backup.”
“She also said that on days when there were not enough staffers to provide prisoners with court-mandated out-of-cell time, she was ordered to fabricate paperwork saying otherwise,” the article reported.
This jailer’s description of guards being ordered to falsify records as part of an effort to cover up the staffing shortage and its consequences aligns with accusations made by whistleblower Gregory. In her open letter to the mayor, she described a variety of tactics management used to cover up or downplay the reality of short-staffing in official documentation: “Failing to acknowledge Correctional Staff resigning at [an] alarming rate in the last 18 months, Making Staff fabricate Time-Out-of-Cell Reports for the courts, Untruthfulness of Staff Rosters, (padding) leaving Officers on the Prison complement to show they out [sic] Family medical Leave, Injured on Duty, or leaving them in the pool to show call outs, willfully knowing they have left the system.”
And it is not just guards who are being ordered to falsify records, according to the Inquirer. In its November 2021 article detailing prisoners’ complaints filed in affidavits as part of the ongoing class action, the newspaper said several prisoners asserted that “staff told them to forge paperwork falsely claiming they were receiving court-mandated out-of-cell time.”
An Inquirer article on July 30, 2021, which focused on short-staffing in relation to the rash of prisoner deaths since 2020, quoted AFSCME’s Robinson, who said guards “are scared for their lives.”
“Inmates are scared for their lives,” he continued, “... [prison administrators] keep saying people aren’t coming to work, but they aren’t giving the reason why: It’s unsafe. It’s totally unsafe inside.”
Also quoted was Pennsylvania Prison Society Executive Director Shubik-Richards, who said that “[y]ou’re at greater risk of homicide than you are at risk of serious complication from COVID [in Philadelphia jails].”
“Yet, we’re not treating that as the crisis,” she added. “No one is taking responsibility for this...Everyone is pointing their finger at another stakeholder and telling them to do their job.”
The Inquirer said a Philadelphia city spokesperson declined to let the paper speak with Commissioner Carney or other city officials on the issue, insisting via email that PDP has adequate staffing to cover its posts and any reports to the contrary are “misinformation [that] undermines the Department’s efforts to support staff and provide security.”
Court Weighs In
IN APRIL 2020, CIVIL RIGHTS ATTORNEYS from a coalition including the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP), the Abolitionist Law Center in Pittsburgh, as well as the Philadelphia firms of Kairys Rudovsky Messing Feinberg & Lin, LLP and Dechert LLP, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on behalf of ten individuals incarcerated in the Philadelphia municipal prison system.
The lawsuit was originally about the spread of COVID-19 and the jails’ lack of adequate hygiene and prevention measures, with claims based on the Eighth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. ch. 126 § 17101 et seq. But it was soon expanded to include the allegedly egregious conditions resulting from the city’s draconian lockdown measures, which initially limited prisoners’ out-of-cell time to 45 minutes per day—at one point ratcheted down to only 15 minutes per day. As the months dragged on and the city’s prisons sank deeper into crisis, the scope of the suit was further increased to include issues such as use of excessive force by prison guards, violence between prisoners, and lack of access to medical care, legal counsel and the courts.
The Inquirer tracked case developments, reporting on August 26, 2021, that a filing alleged staffing shortages had “resulted in ‘delays or outright stoppage’ of everything from law library access to medical care, mail delivery, and provision of basic hygiene supplies.” The story also noted impacts on prisoners’ access to the courts, including a snapshot of just one day in which “video hearings for 28 people seeking the removal of probation detainers were delayed because there were no prison staff to escort them out of their cells.”
A report on November 16, 2021, quoted PILP Executive Director Su Ming Yeh stating that “[t]he conditions at the Philadelphia prisons really are very dire. There are not only sanitation issues and infestations of vermin, but also delays in medical care, increase in violence, and a breakdown in operations.” The story noted that the judge in the case, Senior U.S. District Judge Berle M. Schiller, had ordered the Philly jails to resume in-person visitation for vaccinated prisoners, even as the prison system had once again failed to comply with the judge’s repeated orders that prisoners receive a minimum three hours per day out-of-cell time as part of a court-mandated program to work towards full reopening by January 2022.
For its part, the city “responded in court documents that it had been working to manage ‘an incredibly complex system in the midst of an airborne, viral pandemic,’ while also seeking to balance the ‘tension between getting the incarcerated population out-of-cell-time ... and mitigating the risk of virus transmission,’” according to the Inquirer. On the subject of the ongoing, compounding staff shortage, Philadelphia city spokesperson Kevin Lessard said that PDP was “in the midst of an intensive recruitment/hiring process as we contend with an aggressive labor market,” but he said that the city would have a “large” class of guard cadets graduating in March 2022.
PDP’s repeated failure to comply with the terms of agreements laid out in a June 2020 consent order regarding out-of-cell time resulted in Judge Schiller twice coming just shy of officially finding the city in contempt. The threat of these contempt findings led to what PILP called an “unprecedented settlement agreement”—actually two partial settlement agreements in the case, which remains ongoing—under which the city made two payments totaling $250,000 to Philadelphia’s two nonprofit community bail funds, $125,000 in June 2021 and another $125,000 in February 2022.
On March 11, 2022, the Court swatted down motions to intervene and motions for contempt filed by a half-dozen PDP employees while also certifying a class of prisoners similarly situated to the 10 named plaintiffs, including a subclass of pretrial detainees and another of sentenced prisoners, as well as a third Disability subclass, allowing the case to proceed. See: Remick v. City of Phila., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43339 (E.D. Pa.).
The parties then entered into a settlement agreement on April 12, 2022, after which the Court held a fairness hearing on July 6, 2022, granting final approval six days later and noting “it was a vast understatement to say that this litigation was toilsome and trying” after more than two years. The agreement enshrines policy changes ensuring improved personal hygiene with sufficient Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), along with cleaning and disinfection protocols and education. The agreement also requires PDP:
(1) to hire “a sufficient number of correctional officers to cover all posts” by April 20, 2022;
(2) to ensure those prisoners not held in segregation get “no less than four hours of out-of-cell time each day” by May 15, 2022, and “no less than five hours” by August 1, 2022, agreeing to reach “six hours by October 15, 2022”;
(3) to ensure those prisoners in segregation units get “thirty minutes out-of-cell time on a daily basis” by May 1, 2022, and “no less than one hour” by July 1, 2022, also agreeing Defendants “will continue their practice of not placing incarcerated people in segregation units due to the lack of space or staffing on other units”;
(4) to submit “a plan for a return to normal operations of the PDP (regarding out-of-cell time, programming, visits, and other services)” by November 1, 2022;
(5) to “provide adequate and timely medical and mental health treatment,” including enough funding so that privately contracted healthcare provider Corizon Health can “augment its full-time staff” to “substantially eliminate the existing backlog” of unseen cases by August 1, 2022, and also “re-establish a mental health program” for those in segregation by September 30, 2022;
(6) to “continue to provide law library access for all incarcerated individuals”;
(7) to hold disciplinary proceedings “in accord with established due process rights” and “expunge the disciplinary records for all persons who were not present at their disciplinary hearings” since March 2020, releasing any still serving a disciplinary sentence from segregation and canceling “sanctions that require payments for damage to property or other restitution, and/or return payments made by persons who were required to pay for damage to property or other harms”;
(8) to increase the number of tablets available to prisoners and maintain 15 minutes of daily free phone calls; and, perhaps most importantly
(9) to fix all broken locks by June 30, 2022.
In addition, the agreement calls for increasing capacity for in-person visits by family and friends, while also adhering to COVID-19 protocols to ensure individuals are available for court and for meetings with attorneys. It further provides for retraining guards on the appropriate deployment of pepper spray and other uses of force. The Court also awarded Class Counsel $340,000 in attorney’s fees and costs. See: Remick v. City of Phila., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 122554 (E.D. Pa.).
The parties had previously agreed to the appointment of Cathleen Beltz as an independent monitor on May 25, 2022. See: Remick v. City of Phila., USDC (E.D. Pa.), Case No. 2:20-cv-01959.
In addition to the monitor, the Inquirer reported, the City hired former state Corrections Secretary John Wetzel as a consultant, though it did not provide a copy of his contract.
While the settlement looks excellent on paper, and if implemented as ordered should provide significant relief for prisoners currently suffering under the continuing crisis-level conditions in Philly’s jails, the recent history of PDP management’s actions and public statements does not bode well for its prospects.
One Solution: Decarceration
ACCORDING TO A FEBRUARY 2022 INquirer story, the Philadelphia Bail Fund (PBF) said it planned to use its half of the $250,000 received from the partial settlement agreements “‘to free as many people as possible’ from what it called ‘deplorable, life-threatening conditions’” in PDP. Like the other organization whose clients benefited directly from the settlement money, the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund (PCBF), PBF is an activist organization with the explicit goal of ending cash bail in Philadelphia’s jail system.
In addition to the enhancement of these grassroots groups’ efforts provided by PILP’s settlement agreements with the city, the Inquirer reported on June 2, 2021, that Philadelphia’s public defenders had joined the effort to get folks out of Philly prisons as well. The Defender Association of Philadelphia (DAP) started filing habeas petitions in the summer of 2021 in a desperate attempt to get more of its clients out of PDP’s festering hellholes as quickly as possible. The Inquirer quoted Philadelphia acting Chief Defender Alan Tauber, who said: “Given everything I’ve heard and seen over the past six months, it’s not only a legal responsibility but a moral responsibility to bring this information to the attention of the courts in the interest of seeking our clients’ release. We really have no choice.”
As with PILP’s filings in its ongoing lawsuit DAP’s filings in its habeas petitions cited an all too familiar litany of conditions its clients suffered. In addition to issues of lack of out-of-cell time, medical and legal access, hygiene and safety violations, the filings also include information on prisoners’ mental health. The Inquirer cited a petition in which a social worker reported that “most if not all of her clients have recently begun to experience new mental health issues, including nightmares, anxiety, panic attacks, and paranoia.”
Unfortunately, DAP’s efforts appear to have met with mixed results, at best. The initial filings, on behalf of clients in what the Inquirer described as “a handful of cases in which people were held on bail or on probation-related detainers,” resulted in judges immediately dismissing some of the petitions, though others seemed to factor the petitions into bail decisions.
Despite this uphill battle, DAP attorneys have continued to speak out and add their voices to the chorus of prisoners, families, advocates and community members demanding decarceration. An article in the Inquirer’s series on August 26, 2021, quoted Tauber, who said: “Since last summer the [jail] population has swelled by 20 percent which has not been matched with needed staff. And conditions continue to decline. We have proven that the population can be safely and responsibly lowered to below 4,000 as proven by the release program of last year. . . . We need to return to this initiative immediately.”
Pennsylvania Prison Society’s Barth agrees: “[T]here are too many people in the jail in the first place. At the start of the pandemic, there were strong efforts made to reduce the prison population in Philadelphia; however, that number has since gone back up and is in fact even higher now, so we need to have an intensive, multisectoral effort to decarcerate as many people as we safely can.”
So Goes the Nation?
THE PHILADELPHIA PRISON SYSTEM IS just one of many in the U.S. where the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated preexisting crises, triggering lawsuits, criminal investigations, inmate uprisings, political protest, and community demands for mass decarceration. Several sources compare the situation in Philly’s jails with that in New York City’s Rikers Island jail, which has suffered its own freefall into chaos further intensified by the pandemic. Another municipal system in a major city is Chicago’s Cook County Jail, where one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks among incarcerated people also set off an urgent crisis that triggered a class-action lawsuit and calls for mass decarceration.
Rikers, possibly the most notorious jail in the U.S., saw its already deadly serious, multi-layered crisis of overcrowding, violence, corruption, and lack of access to services spiral further downward with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, just as the Philly jails did. As PLN reported, the crisis at Rikers included an infection rate 78 times higher than the national average, and significantly higher even than New York City’s rate as a whole at its early-2020 peak, when it was the epicenter of COVID-19 in the U.S. [See: PLN, Feb. 2022, p. 1.] That crisis also included increased violence, both between prisoners and guards and among prisoners, and a further decline in access to services, out-of-cell time, food and hygiene, similar to what happened in Philadelphia. The jail’s death rate increased as well, but not even the notorious Rikers Island could top the increase in deaths in Philly’s prisons in 2020 and 2021, despite the fact that Rikers’ incarcerated population is 20% higher.
A similar crisis exploded in Chicago’s huge, overcrowded Cook County Jail as the pandemic hit, and continued well into 2021. As reported by Injustice Watch in February 2022, problems of cascading delays in prisoner processing and court cases piled up much like they did in PDP, along with the same issues regarding access to medical care and hygiene. Prisoners in Cook County filed a class-action similar to that filed against Philadelphia’s prisons, trying to force their jailers to provide adequate access to medical care and implement effective preventive measures against the pandemic, while ensuring that their rights to due process were respected. But despite a catastrophic infection rate that spiked again in 2021, causing some inmates to compare being trapped in the jail to being “in hell,” the overall rates of violence and death in the Cook County Jail did not spike the way they have in Philly’s prisons.
Luckily for those trapped in the State Road compound’s cages, the people of Philadelphia—some of them, at least—are keeping watch, staying organized, and carrying the fight in solidarity with those resisting dehumanization and brutality on the inside. The city’s leaders might do well to heed the words of former prisoner and bail fund organizer Lucian Martin: “Our elected leaders must stop letting this catastrophe continue. This is a real crisis. It has a devastating impact not only on those who are incarcerated but on our families as well. Everything we suffer, mentally and emotionally, they bear as well. Nearly everyone in our jails will return home to their communities and families eventually. Is subjecting them to misery, violence, and untold trauma for months on end going to help those coming home become any more likely to survive and thrive in their communities? Surely not.”
It remains to be seen if Philadelphia’s leaders can show survivors like Martin that they have the humanity, and the fortitude, to make right so many compounded wrongs.
Additional Sources: ABC News, Injustice Watch, KYW Newsradio, Pennsylvania Capital-Star, Pennsylvania Prison Society, Pennsylvania Record, Pennsylvania Institutional Legal Project, Philadelphia Inquirer, NBC News, WHYY, Philadelphia Bail Fund, Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, Prison Policy Initiative, Workers World
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Related legal cases
Jean v. City of Phila.
|2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91755 (E.D. Pa.)
Gregory v. City of Philadelphia
|USDC (E.D. Pa.), Case No. 2:22-cv-00929
Remick v. City of Phila.
|2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43339 (E.D. Pa.)