‘Dire’ situation in Philadelphia jails as Council considers oversight

philadelphia jail
Inmate advocates rally Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023, outside City Hall in support of legislation aimed at enhancing prison oversight.
Metro file

City Council officials continue to work on legislation aimed at strengthening oversight of Philadelphia’s prison system, amid what a court-appointed monitor has described as a “dire” situation inside the State Road jails.

The legislation, if passed, would trigger a ballot question asking voters whether the city should create a new prison oversight board and accompanying office with full-time staff. It was supposed to be considered at a hearing Tuesday but was tabled to allow for alterations to the language of the resolution, officials said.

“We still believe in the need for increased transparency and accountability in our prisons,” said Max Weisman, communications director for Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, the legislation’s primary sponsor. “We’re just fine-tuning the details with our advocates and the legal department about what that would look like in terms of a charter change.”

Since the oversight board and office require a charter change, it needs to be approved by a two-thirds majority of lawmakers and more than 50% of voters. Weisman said the goal is for the bill to be passed in time for a question to be placed on the ballot in the spring primary election.

As originally introduced, the resolution calls for a nine-person board, five of whom would be appointed by the Council president and the remainder chosen by the mayor. The text allows Council to determine its exact powers and duties and alter how members are pointed through a future ordinance.

It would eliminate the Prison Advisory Board, formerly known as the prison board of trustees, the Philadelphia Department of Prisons’ current oversight organization. The group has little formal authority, and a former member characterized it as a “farce” in a 2022 Inquirer op-ed.

The proposed resolution sets the prison oversight office’s funding at no less than one-third of 1% of the PDP’s budget. In the current municipal budget, PDP is allocated $293 million, meaning the office would get at least $975,000.

school building authority
City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas introduced legislation to create a prison oversight board and office.Metro file

Sam Lew, a spokesperson for the Abolitionist Law Center, said the oversight board would be “an important tool.”

“However, we know that more needs to be done now,” she added, in an email. “We can — and must — decarcerate the jails instead of allowing people to suffer grave human rights abuses, which the court has already deemed unconstitutional.”

ALC and other prison advocacy groups pushing for increased oversight have been raising concerns about the number of incarcerated people dying in custody.

On Nov. 6, 50-year-old Louis Jung, of South Philadelphia, was discovered unresponsive while breakfast was being distributed at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. He died while staff transported him to a medical unit, PDP spokesperson John Mitchell told Metro.

Jung had underlying medical conditions, and there was no evidence of foul play, Mitchell said. Court records indicate mental health evaluations were being conducted to see if he was competent to stand trial on charges relating to a 2021 robbery. Jung is the 12th inmate to die in custody in city jails this year.

In a report filed last month, Cathleen Beltz, a court-appointed monitor, said that PDP has significantly improved its review of inmate deaths. But Beltz noted many other problems in the prisons and wrote that the department is “plagued by acute and deeply problematic operational and cultural issues, many of which must be resolved internally.”

Inmates are still not getting enough out-of-cell time, and issues with facility maintenance and rodents persist, the report found. Beltz and her team were also critical of the department’s response when correctional officers used force against inmates.

Beltz was appointed to track PDP’s progress in meeting 18 provisions in a federal court settlement, stemming from a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of incarcerated people during the coronavirus pandemic.

A severe staffing shortage has prevented the department from meeting many of the settlement’s stipulations and played a role in the May escape of two prisoners, according to the report. More than 800 correctional officer positions are unfilled – a vacancy rate of around 40%.

“The situation is dire, and PDP should expect more critical incidents as long as it persists,” Beltz wrote.

prison escape
Two inmates who escaped from the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center in May.Metro file

District Attorney Larry Krasner, during a Council hearing earlier this month, pointed to a host of failures, including a napping guard, falsified inmate counts, a hole in a fence and broken sensor poles, that allowed Ameen Hurst and Nasir Grant to escape May 7 from the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center.

Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney, at the same hearing, called for the criminal justice system to reduce the incarcerated population, which currently stands at around 4,700. She told Beltz that, without an influx of staff, the system can only meet the requirements of the settlement with a maximum of 3,500 inmates, according to the report.

Barring that, or a hiring frenzy amid a nationwide shortage of correctional officers, Beltz, while acknowledging its pitfalls, suggested a third option – suspending the imprisonment of certain groups of defendants.

“In the meantime, the trauma experienced by Class Members (incarcerated people) is profound and clearly observable to all who work in, enter, or reside in PDP facilities,” Beltz wrote. “Exposure to extended periods of isolation, institutional violence, squalor, and neglect breach all standards for humane confinement and is certain to have lifelong effects for many.”