“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.