“A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals.” – Dostoevsky
No one should have to tell us that incarcerated people are human beings deserving of human dignity and care. Yet, their humanity is abandoned by those who have complete control over their lives and in whose care those lives are entrusted.
The worst offenses against human dignity often occur in county corrections facilities. Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF) has been among the worst offenders, as was its predecessor Holmesburg Prison, where abuses included medical and biochemical testing on inmates, which some have compared to the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study in Alabama (1932-1972). (In a gruesomely ironic twist, Curran-Fromhold takes its name from the warden and deputy warden of Holmesburg who were killed by inmates.)
According to members of the correctional officers’ union Local 159, as well as current and former people incarcerated at CFCF, the failure to properly supervise the facility has led to the deaths of numerous people over the years.
At a news conference over the death of twenty-two-year-old Rodney Hargrove, who was murdered on the grounds of CFCF only an hour after being released on March 18, 2021, Eric Hill, business manager for Local 159 told reporters, “At no time did Commissioner Carney, or the Philadelphia Department of Prisons (PDP), show any intention of increasing staffing, increasing safety, or acting to prevent such criminal atrocities from happening in the near future.”
Stories of inmates echo those concerns. In letters sent to multiple people in mid-April, L.B.* who is currently incarcerated at CFCF, described being locked in his cell for days at a time without being allowed to leave, being denied phone calls, visits, religious services, access to the law library, supplies to clean the cell and clean masks or showers.
He goes on to describe being housed in one of the four multipurpose rooms converted into cells where each room housed four people. “No jail in PA has four-man cells, it’s unconstitutional to force four men to share one toilet, to put them in a cell without any windows, that can only be released with a key. Other cells don’t have to be individually opened with a key, they can be buzzed out. If there’s a fire or some other emergency I’m dead,” L.B. said.
L.B. says that they’ve been locked in their cells for weeks, being allowed out only occasionally, because there aren’t enough guards on the block. “The guards aren’t making rounds the way they’re supposed to and when they do a count, they aren’t making us get up or show signs of life, to know that we’re alive in here,” said L.B.
Multiple people incarcerated at CFCF say there are as many as 2,500 people housed in the prison. The PDP says the current headcount is 2,401, while admitting the facility is regularly overcrowded by at least several hundred people – as well as chronically short-staffed.
Overcrowding, staff shortages, failure to properly monitor people incarcerated at CFCF (and other Philadelphia Prison System facilities) have led to several murders, suicides, overdoses, and at least one death due to medical neglect, just in the last year alone.
These conditions have been known about for decades, much of that time under federal court and Department of Justice supervision, with little to no resolution to these abuses.
Rahsaan Chambers was only 22 when he died due to what the medical examiner describes as complications of diabetic ketoacidosis, but the truth is he died because guards failed to get him the immediate medical attention he needed for at least 24 hours.
According to his mother, Mrs. Ebony Chambers, and two incarcerated people on Rahsaan’s bloc on April 6, his initial attempts to get medical assistance were rebuffed by the guard on duty, who told Rahsaan he couldn’t see a nurse or go to medical.
“He called me at 9:38PM on Tuesday, April 6th – he snuck the call. He said ‘mom I can’t breathe’. I told him to go to medical, but he told me they wouldn’t let him,” Mrs. Chambers said.
Rodney Hargrove was murdered on the grounds of CFCF only an hour after being released on March 18, 2021
“No guards checked him during the night, nor did they make him get out of bed in the morning,” said L.B. It wasn’t until L.B. noticed that Rahsaan didn’t come out for recreation time that L.B. decided to get into the medical line to speak with a nurse. Still, no one came to check on Rahsaan until the evening.
“They still didn’t check on him until we started kicking the door and they couldn’t ignore us anymore, that’s when they found him unconscious in his bed. The staff wouldn’t even put him on the gurney, inmates had to put him on it, that was Wednesday,” L.B. continued.
“Neither the jail nor the hospital called to tell me my child was in the hospital. I had to find out from an inmate, his cellie had to call me to let me know my son was in the hospital. I got that call on Friday,” said Mrs. Chambers. “I tried to call the hospital on Friday but they wouldn’t give me any information or let me talk to my baby, they told me I had to call the warden.”
According to Mrs. Chambers, the Warden’s office gave her the run-around until Saturday, when her son had a mild heart attack. Beginning on Monday, April 12th, she was able to visit her son for one hour each day.
“On April 15th, Rahsaan took a turn for the worse. When I came in on Friday, April 16, the doctors told me my son had minutes to hours left to live,” she said. Rahsaan Chambers died that day at 8:42AM at Jefferson Health (Torresdale Campus), leaving a grief-stricken family behind.
“This didn’t have to happen, all of this could have been prevented if they had just given him the medical care he needed when he needed it,” said Mrs. Chambers.
She’s right, it didn’t have to happen, if he’s only gotten the medical attention he needed, both that night and when he first presented diabetic symptoms.
Diabetic Ketoacidosis is most common in type 1 diabetes but can also occur in type 2 and pre-diabetes, if left untreated. Neither Ebony nor L.B. believe Rahsaan was being treated for any medical conditions during the three years he was incarcerated in the PPS.
Corizon Correctional Healthcare, the medical provider for CFCF, has a long history of being accused of medical neglect, deliberate indifference, and medical malpractice, not just within the PPS, but throughout the country at the county, state, and federal levels of the carceral system.
The lack of timely, adequate medical care for Rahsaan Chambers’ medical condition, in combination with staff’s failure to adequately perform their duty to supervise, check on people incarcerated at CFCF, and listen to the medical complaints of people in their care, led to Rahsaan’s death.
Similar conditions and neglect have left thousands of incarcerated people to suffer from physical and psychological abuse to untreated, but easily treatable, medical conditions.
“He had a broken neck. He had bruises, his eye was smashed in. He took a severe beating,” said Diana Lawhon, the victim’s mother.
Unfortunately, in many cases, Corizon wasn’t held responsible by the courts. The 1983 suit requirements were both complicated and strict and most incarcerated people don’t have the legal knowledge to navigate the system, or the financial means to hire an attorney to pursue justice when their rights are violated by prison officials or medical service providers such as Corizon.
But the recent Black Lives Matter movement has shown us at least two things, the first is that as a society we need to investigate the claims of marginalized people when they relate their experiences to us – with or without video – which in most cases is extremely rare. We have to look past the dehumanizing language that often accompanies these stories and believe the victims.
The second is that justice is possible, but that power concedes nothing without a demand and action to back it up. The people locked behind prison walls are vulnerable precisely because society has chosen to ignore them and therefore they have limited power to defend themselves. It’s up to us as their communities to stand up for them.
If you are interested in ensuring the human rights of our brother, sisters, mothers, fathers, neighbors, and community members organizers have been holding demonstrations every Friday at noon in front of the gates at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. You can also contact Decarcerate PA to find out more information about how to get involved.
*For the safety of those currently incarcerated, I only use their initials when quoting them or attributing statements to them.
Philly we gotta do better, the shit happening to incarcerated people in the Philadelphia prison system are human rights crimes. CFCF has a long history of human rights abuses, medical neglect is torture and we have an obligation to stand up for those enduring it.
This is distressing. My husband was in jail for owing back alimony- he had very severe health problems-including congestive heart failure, diabetes, sleep apnea-and very bad circulation in his lower legs. If he got a cut on his feet or lower legs, it always turned into cellulitis and he would become sick- usually requiring hospitalization anf iv antibiotics.
He was very heavu and needed two pillows so that his air ways could remain open while he slept. He was not given any pillows because they were “out,” and he was not allowed his sleep apnea machine. They didn’t have shoes big enough for him, so he wore too small shoes which his heels stuck out of. He got a cut on his feet. When he was taken to jail after finding out he had a warrant while trying to get his license back, he found out there was a warrant out for his arrest for contempt of court for a missed DHR payment ( he had finished paying off his child support, but the state of Alabama had started combining alimony with child support as one debt. Anyway he owed a little over $4000 in alimony – but the 13% interest charged by the State of Alabama caused him to have over $189,000 in interest. He had no idea he had a warrant from years back before he started having his payments taken out of social security. Long story short- they were not telling him when he would get out- his health condition was deteriorating- he got a cut on his foot, it turned into cellulitis, and I got a call from the jail out of the blue that they were releasing him from jail. When I got there, he was delirious- with a high fever- he was going in and out of consciousness. I took him home and straight to the hospital ER- he almost died- his cellulitis infection had gone into his bones. He was in the hospital for almost a week and then he had to have iv antibiotics for the entire summer. He almost died and would have had they not let him out of jail. This eventually caused him to lose two toes. Had he had his prescribed meds- which included a breathing machine for sleeping, and adequate foot protection, perhaps he would not have developed cellulitis which became a bone infection. This impaired his quality of life and eventually lead to his death. In Alabama, it is useless to sue the justice system. This was Tuscaloosa Co. jail. I can only imagine what prison would have been like. My husband not having pillows to keep his head high enough to be able to breathe while he slept was cruel and unusual punishment. If one cannot breathe, one’s circulation is not able to work properly, and without adequate circulation, one’s body cannot fight off infection. This was a very unfair and unusually cruel punishment for owing back alumony. The ex-wife of my husband was the grand daughter of the Sheriff of Tuscaloosa for over 30 years She had political connections and was able to use the “good ol’boy” system to het advantage. My husband was a good and kind man. He left her 10 acres of lakefront property on Lake Tuscaloosa, and an amazing house and barn which he designed and built himself. She was from a wealthy family and was not hurting for money in the least- she used the court system for personal revenge. He left her because she was a wicked, mean, and vengeful person. No judge cared to hear his side of the story. It was a cruel injustice.
Thank you for your husband’s story, I’ve heard stories like this for years. One of the main difficulties is that often people are afraid to go on the record when these issues occur which makes it difficult to report on. But we here at The Local, love tough stories and we’re here to be a voice for our community which is often underserved, so we’re going after this one. And since I don’t do anything half-assed, you can bet your bottom dollar I’m coming hard.
That said, in the next article that comes out on this subject I take the broad view of medical neglect and abuse in the carceral system and this is only beginning. I do have a question for you though, did the institution your husband was incarcerated at use private health service, and if so what was the company’s name?
I’m very sorry for the loss of your husband.
Hopefully time will heal you under the Lord’s watchful & loving eye.
What occurred to your husband was absolutely criminal. There is US case law [Turner v. Rogers] that jurisdictions are prohibited for imprisoning anyone for failure to pay child support, if their financial affidavit demonstrates an inability to pay child support, including back child support payments. See https://www.acf.hhs.gov/css/policy-guidance/turner-v-rogers-guidance#:~:text=In%20Turner%2C%20the%20United%20States,state%20provides%20adequate%20procedural%20safeguards.
I am saddened by the death of anyone but what the government did to your husband is equivalent to a war crime, IMHO.
Please seek out an attorney to see what your options are. It just seems so much like a wrongful death lawsuit for what they did to your husband. He does deserve justice! And you do too.
The conditions faced by so many of our brothers and sisters locked in cages behind these literal and figurative walls are human rights crimes. The two series I’m currently working on expose the brutality and callousness, the sheer inhumanity they are being subjected to. And while the courts are an avenue that should and must be pursued when the opportunity presents itself, it is often a seemingly impossible one to follow, much less win and must be augmented with sustained protest and demands for substantive change!