A Humanitarian Crisis in Philadelphia Prisons

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By: Felicia Dusha, Staff Writer

Over the past few months, The Philadelphia Inquirer has reported shockingly inhumane conditions in Philadelphia’s prisons.[1] This year alone, 14 people in Philadelphia prisons have died.[2] People are locked in cells for sometimes 22 or 23 hours a day, experience delays in medical care, limited access to showers, no in-person visits, and limited access to phone or video calls.[3] The Pennsylvania Prison Society, which works to ensure humane prison and jail conditions, has been responding to reports of inhumane conditions and is calling on elected officials to immediately address the crisis.

To better understand the crisis in Philadelphia prisons, I recently spoke with the Pennsylvania Prison Society’s Prison Monitoring Director, Noah Barth.[4] Mr. Barth has performed multiple walkthroughs of Philadelphia prisons and spoken with incarcerated people about prison conditions.

According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the current prison staffing shortage is contributing to these inhumane conditions.[5] As of September 23, 2021, prison staffing remained 500 officers below where it needs to be to operate safely.[6] According to Mr. Barth, although COVID-19 has exacerbated the staffing deficit, the staffing deficit pre-dates the pandemic and is an issue across Pennsylvania. Mr. Barth stated:

“I recently hosted a panel at an annual conference of county commissioners. One of the first things that came up was staffing issues. I asked for a show of hands on who is having trouble staffing their county jails and almost every single hand in a group of about 50 county commissioners from across the state went up.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer addressed the seriousness of the staffing shortage in a recent article on a stabbing at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.[7] Reportedly, an incarcerated man was repeatedly stabbed in an attack by three men on a cellblock with no guard nearby and left to stagger back into his cell as no one came to his aid.[8]

Mr. Barth explained that “while staffing is certainly at the root of a lot of what is going on in Philadelphia jails, it does not exist in a vacuum.” The staffing crisis is exacerbating a series of other problems, such as the prison conditions and the way people are being treated. As Mr. Barth stated, “there 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.”

The Prison Society has performed walkthroughs in four of the five Philadelphia prison facilities. Mr. Barth reported:

“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. 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 a productivity and legality. There are rules around access to the law library and they are not being followed.”

Moreover, Mr. Barth spoke to about ten men in solitary confinement who reported that they had not received hearings or written charges. Normally, when a person is incarcerated and prison authorities feel that the individual has done something that warrants solitary confinement, he or she is guaranteed a hearing within seven days. However, according to the individuals Mr. Barth spoke with, this is not happening.

Another safety issue is the recent implementation of sliding bolts to cell doors. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, prison staff added sliding bolts after recent riots at Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center (PICC) and Riverside Correctional Facility (RCF), which started after almost 90 incarcerated men hacked the locks to their cell doors.[9] Mr. Barth explained that these sliding bolts “present serious concerns about safety because they cannot be opened remotely—an officer has to go and manually open the lock by sliding the steel bolt. So, in the case of an emergency, there is no way to rapidly open the cells.”

In terms of what steps city officials have taken to improve conditions, Mr. Barth reports that there has been little to nothing done at this stage. Mr. Barth stated that it is important for the citizens of Philadelphia to call or write to elected officials and “let them know that we need a different, more humane approach to criminal justice.” Mr. Barth also stressed that it is imperative to help raise the alarm by getting more people aware of the crisis. He stated:

“There has been quite a bit of national media attention on the crisis in Rikers Island in New York, and rightfully so because they are clearly in a crisis state, but I think it would be a mistake to view Rikers as an outlier or stand-alone case. What we see happening in Philadelphia shows that point. We are a city of about 2 million residents compared to New York’s 9 million and we have 4,600 people in our jails, which is more than New York. We have had 14 deaths in the jails this year already, which is also more than New York, so we are in a crisis, but we are also not the only ones. We need to understand that there is a real crisis in our jail system across the country and it is imperative to act right now.”

In conclusion, Philadelphia prisons are in crisis, and, reportedly, little is being done to improve conditions. It is necessary that we address the issues in Philadelphia prisons as well as prisons across the country to create a more fair, equal, and humane system of criminal justice.[10]

[1] https://www.inquirer.com/opinion/commentary/philadelphia-prisons-correctional-officer-shortage-20211006.html

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] I would like to thank Noah Barth for his contributions to this article.

[5] https://www.inquirer.com/opinion/commentary/philadelphia-prisons-correctional-officer-shortage-20211006.html

[6] Id.

[7] https://www.inquirer.com/news/philadelphia-jails-staffing-shortage-assault-20211104.html – loaded

[8] Id.

[9] https://www.inquirer.com/news/philadelphia-jail-prison-riot-disturbance-picc-20211015.html#loaded

[10] For more information, please refer to the Pennsylvania Prison Society’s July 2021 report on the Philadelphia prison crisis at https://3772f2fe-214c-4e1b-a841-2f04ec39715e.filesusr.com/ugd/4c2da0_1d626c52e93749ef8baa66afc090c261.pdf.  For additional reports, see: https://www.prisonsociety.org/reports-fact-sheets.

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