Union leader: Fire prison commissioner now

prisons no confidence
Local 159 President David Robinson speaks to reporters Wednesday, May 3, across the street from the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center.
Jack Tomczuk

The president of a union representing correctional officers in Philadelphia’s jails is pleading with Mayor Jim Kenney to fire his prison commissioner.

David Robinson, president of AFSCME Local 159, part of District Council 33, said his members on Tuesday night unanimously approved a vote of ‘no confidence’ in Blanche Carney, who has led the prison system since 2016.

“We need something to change now. We cannot wait any longer,” Robinson told reporters during a new conference Wednesday afternoon outside the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center. “We can’t stand for this. How many more people have to die? How many more officers have to get injured?”

Union officials said Carney has not done enough to address a staffing crisis – an estimated 800 positions remain vacant. They also cited unsafe conditions, sanitary issues and crumbling facilities.

Local 159 pointed to court monitor reports that show that the prison system is not meeting the terms of a settlement stemming from a class-action lawsuit brought by inmates over living conditions.

“I acknowledge the challenges brought on by the pandemic which impacted both operations and staffing levels continuously for three years,” Carney said Wednesday in a statement. “Our dedicated and committed staff, who continue to staff the jails and work unceasingly to provide public safety to the City of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, have my unconditional support as we build back from COVID-19.”

Carney added that a change that went into effect this week will allow the Department of Prisons to have continuous job postings, as opposed to periodic hiring windows.

That, combined with a recent starting correctional officer salary increase (from $44,135 a year to $57,370), should help boost staff levels, she said.

Carney has Mayor Jim Kenney’s “support and confidence,” a spokesperson from his office said in a statement. The Kenney administration has “been working diligently to address the staffing and facilities challenges outlined by corrections officers as areas of concern,” the statement continued.

The administration said it is committed to achieving compliance with the 18 provisions outlined in the legal settlement.

Robinson said more than 100 Local 159 members attended the no-confidence vote, though he did not know the exact number. Leaders of unions representing prison social and clerical workers joined him at Wednesday’s press briefing.

“Under her leadership, it’s been nothing but disarray,” Robinson said. “Morale is at an all-time low.”