Prison advocates, citing recent deaths, lobby for oversight legislation

prison oversight
Inmate advocates rally Thursday, Sept. 28, outside City Hall in support of legislation aimed at enhancing prison oversight.
Jack Tomczuk

A group of organizations dedicated to advocating for inmates is pushing lawmakers to advance a measure aimed at enhancing oversight of Philadelphia’s jails.

Activists, during a rally Thursday outside City Hall, cited recent deaths – two in September – and mentioned rodent infestations, small food portions and the use of solitary confinement.

“It’s about time that somebody looks behind those walls to see exactly what’s going on,” said John Thompson, a formerly incarcerated man who works for the Abolitionist Law Center.

The ALC is leading a coalition that is calling on City Council to pass legislation establishing a prison oversight board and office. Following the demonstration, they headed inside to lobby elected officials and their staff.

“We’re not asking for them to have big-screen TVs in every cell,” Thompson added. “We’re asking them to be in a living condition that’s conducive to a human being.”

John Thompson, of the Abolitionist Law Center, speaks Thursday, Sept. 28, at a rally outside City Hall supporting legislation aimed at enhancing prison oversight.Jack Tomczuk

Councilmember Isaiah Thomas introduced the resolution, which would create a nine-person board, with the council president appointing five members and the mayor selecting four. Its exact powers and duties would be detailed in a future ordinance, and lawmakers may decide to change how members are appointed.

Funding to staff an Office of Prison Oversight would be tied to the jail system’s budget.

Thompson said ALC wants the board to include at least two formerly incarcerated people, mental health experts and members of the community. No former correctional officers should be appointed, he told those who attended the rally.

A hearing to consider the oversight legislation is expected in November. To become law, it would need to be approved by a two-thirds majority vote in council before being placed on the ballot as a question in the spring 2024 primary.

Currently, there is a Prison Advisory Board that some advocates have characterized as having little power to act. Former board member Sara Jacobson, in a 2022 Inquirer op-ed she penned shortly after resigning, described the body as a “farce.”

Minister Rodney Muhammad, the board’s chair, agreed that the group has little formal authority. Powers once delegated to it, such as ratifying contracts, have been stripped away over the years, he told Metro.

“A lot of what the board had was taken away from it,” Muhammad said. “It didn’t start out as just an advisory board.”

Still, members, who generally meet quarterly, have still been tackling serious issues, Muhammad said, including the length of time people are incarcerated pre-trial.

“Frankly, some of the people sit too long,” he said.

Tinika Hogan, of Sankofa Healing Services, who works with women inside the jails, echoed that concern during Thursday’s rally.

“I know some women who are in there for retail theft who’ve been in there for nine months waiting for a court date,” Hogan said. “And after nine months, the court date is again postponed.”

Inmate advocates rally Thursday, Sept. 28, outside City Hall in support of legislation aimed at enhancing prison oversight.Jack Tomczuk

Reports from a court-mandated monitor – a result of federal litigation – and the Pennsylvania Prison Society have described poor conditions inside the city’s jails since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

Nearly 50 people have died since 2020 in the custody of the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, which operates multiple facilities on State Road in Northeast Philadelphia. The fatalities included five homicides, eight suicides and 12 drug overdoses, according to a death registry ALC acquired through a public records request and shared with Metro.

Most recently, on Sept. 13, Jimmy Phan, 26, died of an apparent suicide, a prison spokesperson said. He was found unresponsive with bedding around his neck inside his cell – where he was housed alone – at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center as prison employees distributed morning meals, according to PDP.

A day earlier, 63-year-old Brian Miraglia died at Jefferson Torresdale Hospital, prison officials said. He had been held at Riverside Correctional Facility before being hospitalized Sept. 7 due to underlying health conditions, the department added.

“We take seriously and grieve any death that occurs in any of our facilities, and we work constantly to improve prison conditions while working through severe staffing shortages,” PDP Communications Director John Mitchell said in a statement.

In 2022, 10 inmates died in custody – the lowest number since 2010 – and 11 fatalities have been reported this year, Mitchell said.

PDP has averaged 11.6 deaths a year since Blanche Carney became prisons commissioner in 2017, compared to 15.2 in the five years prior to her tenure, Mitchell told Metro.