Dire Human Rights Conditions in Philadelphia Prisons Make Us All Unsafe

Who Will Hold Prison Leadership Accountible?


In America, we are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. The lived experience of those incarcerated before having their day in court is just the opposite. Between 70 percent of people detained by the Philadelphia Department of Prisons (PDP) haven’t been convicted of any crime. The vast majority of those convicted will one day return to the community, and 100 percent of those who aren’t convicted will also return to the community they were taken from. All of them will have endured some of the most inhumane conditions imaginable. They will have been irrevocably dehumanized and traumatized, making whatever issues they went in with infinitely worse.

AAPI community members may be underrepresented in the prison population, making up only .7 percent of people detained in a Philly prison, while Black and Latinx communities are over-represented, with 71 percent and 18.5 percent, respectively, but the conditions faced by those impacted are everyone’s problem.

The average length of pretrial detention in Philly prisons is nearly 240 days; 95 percent of people arrested for a crime will plead guilty, whether they committed the crime or not, just to end their jail stay. Whether it’s to be released on probation or move on to better conditions in state prison at the end of the day, their incarceration in Philadelphia’s prisons system convinced them to plead out.

“People are languishing in jails, the time between arrests, and when their cases are heard, or there is any trial or decision made on their case is egregiously long,” said Sam Lew, representing Abolitionist Law Center in a town hall-style meeting on the conditions in the Philadelphia prison system. “There is a high number of people who have some sort of mental health issue in Philadelphia prisons, around 40 percent.”

She notes that Chief Medical Director Bruce Herdman describes Philly prisons as the largest psychiatric facility in Pennsylvania.

“We’re funneling people into our jails when they should get mental health treatment instead of incarceration,” said Lew.

More than a year after the PDP settled in Remick v. City of Philadelphia and agreed to correct the monstrous conditions raised by inmates in the federal lawsuit, the Department has made few, if any, substantial improvements. Where there was movement to improve conditions, the special Monitor appointed by the federal courts in the Remick case described it as “Partial Compliance.” There were at least 38 sections of the Remick agreement that the prison wasn’t in compliance with at all.

“One person said he went 42 days without a shower; people aren’t getting access to phone calls, meals, visits to their families, or toilet paper,” said Lew. “There is inadequate medical care. Frequently, there’s no response to sick calls. I’ve talked to people who put in five or six sick calls without receiving medical treatment; often, there is no response. I recently met someone with such severe wounds on his hips that he was profusely bleeding, and pus was coming out, and all they gave him were towels to absorb it; he was told to wrap these towels around his hips; the improvement was that they gave him a bunch of diapers. He could have died, and they wouldn’t have cared. No one is doing anything to improve the conditions people are living through.”

These are nearly the same conditions reported in the Remick case and reported by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated in 2020, 2021, and 2022.

More than 20 percent of people incarcerated at Riverside Correctional Facility (RCF) reported that the jail doesn’t provide enough food. Like other Philadelphia jails, RCF serves no meals between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m., causing many to go hungry during this 16-hour gap or purchase supplementary food from the commissary. One man reported that the day after the jailbreak, he was not served any hot food and was told by staff, “People broke out of jail, so we gotta suffer for it,” according to recent reports by the Philadelphia Prisons Society.

“People regularly go to bed so hungry it hurts,” said Lewis Brown last year after being released from Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF). “You might lose 20 to 30 pounds in here, I try to make sure my cellies have enough to eat when we get to the store (commissary), but we might not get it for weeks at a time, sometimes a corrections officer might go down and get it, but these people don’t care if we go hungry, we’re not even human to some of them.”

According to the Monitor, “PDP continues to report deficiencies in ensuring that Class Members (Incarcerated people) receive opportunities to recreate, shower, make phone calls, attend family or legal visits, and other activities outside their cells for minimum daily time frames required in the Agreement.”

The Monitor also found that PDP’s tracking method was inadequate and often flawed.

Whistleblower Lt. Sholanda Gregory reported last year that staff was forced to “fabricate time-out of-cell reports for the courts, and staff rosters, leaving officers on the prison complement to show them as out on family medical leave, Injured on Duty, or leaving them in the pool to show call outs, knowing they have left the system.”

“We had a vote of no confidence in Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney on May 2nd. It was unanimous,” said David Robinson, President of AFSCME Local 159, a union representing Philadelphia correctional officers. “I reached out to the Mayor’s office, and of course, the Mayor said he supports her. That’s his pick. His term is almost up, so I don’t see him firing her. I don’t see her resigning. But how many more people have to die? How many more inmates must escape before we know enough is enough?”

According to multiple sources, there have been at least three violent riots since 2020 over living conditions in the Philadelphia prison system, leading to hundreds of incarcerated people being placed in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is universally recognized as a severe form of torture leading to permanent physical and emotional harm.

At least 33 people have died due to PDP leadership’s incompetence or corruption, a rate 77 percent higher than the national average for county prison systems. Many of them would have lived if corrections officers were on their block or answered the emergency call buttons in their cells, hell, if those call buttons even worked.

Multiple sources have consistently reported that sick calls and grievance slips regularly go unanswered.

“Grievances are piling up in the boxes inmates are supposed to place them in, and they just go unanswered long after inmates can no longer put any more in them,” said Lew.

“My son didn’t have to die; he needed medical treatment, and they ignored him for days,” said Ebony Chambers, the mother of Rahsaan Chambers was only 22 when he died while incarcerated at (CFCF), due to what the medical examiner describes as complications of diabetic ketoacidosis. “They just didn’t care about him as a human being, and they let him languish and die, then they refused to give me any answers like neither of us mattered.”

Similar stories are told by all of the victims’ families I’ve been able to speak with, yet despite their presumed innocence and the dedication of at least a dozen reporters and hundreds of activists, these victims remain hidden.

“The recent escapes from State Road are only the most publicly visible sign of the crises at the Philadelphia prisons,” said Noah Barth, the Prison Society’s director of prison monitoring. The severe shortage of corrections officers and the jail’s mismanagement have endangered incarcerated people, staff, (and the public) long before the jailbreak. “The most important stakeholder on this issue cannot be here today–the individuals incarcerated in our city’s prisons,” Noah’s testimony continued.

“The Prison Society’s walkthrough of Riverside Correctional Facility (RCF) on May 18th found many of the same issues we encountered on our nine previous walkthroughs since June 2021,” said Barth. “Incarcerated people are still confined to their cells for days without staff supervision; half of the people we spoke with said they’re not let out of their cell on some days. They reported that the entire facility was on lockdown for three days after the escape, despite being separate from the one where the breach occurred.”

“Staff is still not responding to in-cell buzzers that are used to call them in an emergency, according to 80 percent of the incarcerated people we interviewed,” continued Barth. “We heard about this issue in our first walkthrough of RCF in September 2021, when multiple incarcerated people reported that a man suffered a seizure for hours without receiving aid because they couldn’t get the staff’s attention.”

“My cellie fell out the other day, bleeding all over; we called the COs with no response,” said a current person incarcerated at RCF in a phone call.

“These guards aren’t trying here that; they turn those buttons off because they can’t be bothered; so many times we had to kick the gate because someone was in trouble in their cells, we might have to beat that door all night before someone comes,” said Brown about his time in CFCF.

Another person being held at RCF told a representative of the PA Prison Society, “It’s scary because I have a heart condition. I would have to bang on the door (if there was a medical emergency).” He might not get the help he needs, then because corrections officers may not be on the floor.

“A guy hung it up (committed suicide) in 2021; his cellie was on his gate for hours trying to get help before anyone came; dude was messed up after that,” said Norman Copper.

Prisons Commissioner Blanch Carney and her leadership team blame the inhumane conditions and security issues on staff shortages. Sholanda Gregory points out leadership’s failure to listen to the concerns of incarcerated people and corrections officers and the mismanagement of funds.

“Leadership at the highest level has failed to maintain the Safety and Security of our Prison System, not Staff Shortage or Lack of reporting staff. Staff Shortages are blamed for everything,” said Gregory. “Commissioner Blanche Carney has changed the Philadelphia Prison System into the Department of Prisons to get funding from the State and Government for Programs for inmates which never manifested. Jails were closed to save the City of Philadelphia money, but it damaged the foundation of the Prisons: Inmates, Correctional Officers, Sergeants, and Lieutenants. Thousands were spent on a parking lot built on a creek we cannot park on because it’s unsafe. Deputy Commissioner Terrence Clark of Operations and Deputy Commissioner Xavier Beaufort of Administration, who both came up the ranks and ignored the severity of the closing of jails, is beyond belief.”

Despite multiple attempts in recent weeks, PDP leadership could not be reached for comment.

“Millions of dollars were given to Corizon Health, GD Correctional Food Services, U.S. Facilities for CFCF and RCF, and Centurion Detention Health Services, but they refused to Invest in the foundation of the Prison system by repairing the locks on cell doors, though out the system for the safety of Correctional Staff, Outside Support Staff as well as the inmates, said Gregory.

For the last three years, journalists, Incarcerated people, advocates, corrections officers, and city officials have been raising the alarm about the conditions inside Philadelphia’s prisons with little movement. Even after two people facing violent criminal charges escaped from the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center (PICC), leadership is slow walking reforms.

Instead of examining the complete human rights picture in PDP and holding prison leadership accountable for the human beings that are living and dying in these conditions, City Council will hold hearings on the escape from Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Complex on May 7th, 2023, limiting accountability to the most visible of symptoms of systemic issues infesting the Philadelphia Prison System.

Commissioner Carney serves at the pleasure of the Mayor; we know Mayor Kenney isn’t going to do anything about her and her failure to ensure humane, safe conditions in her prisons, so if we believe people deserve to be treated humanely and safely even while awaiting the outcomes of their cases, the next Mayor is going to have to commit to holding prison leadership accountable, said Rev. Dr. Chris Kimmenez, Executive Director at Healing Communities.




About Cory Clark 68 Articles
Cory Clark is a photojournalist and writer who focuses on human rights and other social issues. His work has been featured in numerous media outlets, including Philly Magazine and Fortune. He has worked as a freelancer for Getty Images, The Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse for many years. Currently, he serves as the Senior Reporter for both Revive Local and the New MainStream Press.

1 Comment

  1. I may have a piece about the conditions faced by women in the Philadelphia Prisons System either this week or next week.

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