Philly’s Hidden Human Rights Crisis: Part 2

Nightmare Road

CFCF front entrance from State Road, Philadelphia, PA on Febuary 12, 2022. (Cory Clark)

Violence and death aren’t the only forms of brutality and torture these moms, dads, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters are forced to endure. It’s merely the tip of a spear designed to kill their minds, bodies, and spirits while blackening the souls of us all.

On average, at least 74 percent of the people held in these modern-day dungeons haven’t even had their day in court, and under “American Criminal Justice” principles are innocent until they’ve had that day. Nearly half of them are in them on drug offenses.

Unfortunately, the reality of “American criminal Justice” is that once you are arrested, you are treated as if you are, in fact, guilty of whatever you are charged with regardless of the evidence against you until you can prove yourself innocent.

Is it any wonder 95 percent of convictions are via plea deal?

Not that being guilty of even the most heinous of crimes in the criminal code is justification for the treatment heaped on these men, women, and, too often, children.

A young woman hangs out the window of a car during a caravan protest outside of CFCF to demand the Prison address the ongoing human rights crisis in the Philadelphia prison system, in Philadelphia, PA, on February 12, 2022. (Cory Clark)

“The conditions at the Philadelphia prisons really are very dire,” said Su Ming Yeh, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.

As you’re reading this, I want you to periodically close your eyes and imagine how people living with these conditions feel, how these conditions are changing them. How will allowing these conditions to persist change us?

The rooms these folks are held in are the size of a bathroom or large closet in your house. They’re not being allowed out for days, even weeks. According to court documents, when they are allowed out of that tiny room, it is usually for no more than an hour, despite the courts ordering PDP to provide at least three hours each day out-of-cell time for those being held in their facilities.

Inmate drawing of a double occupancy cell.

They are locked in this tiny space 23 to 24 hours a day without respite. Often with anywhere from 1 to 3 additional bodies in that space.

“You can walk five or six paces. Maybe you can push it to ten if you take small steps.” Lewis Brown tells me as he sits across from me, his face darkens, remembering what it was like during the four months it took to fight his case in the county courts. “But only one person can do that at a time; there were three other people in that cramped little space, each with a different personality, life experiences, everyone stressed to the breaking point.”

At that time, they must get a shower, call their families, lawyers, and get whatever exercise they are able before they’re forced back into lockdown, turning up the stress level to nuclear.

“I have gone 42 days without being able to take a shower,” said Qaasim Berry, 25, according to an affidavit, in which he also reported not being able to talk to his family in a “couple of months.”

During a single-week period at the end of 2021 at Philadelphia Industrial correctional Complex, most units received just one hour or less of time out of their cells for the entire week.

It’s easy to see why there might be a rise in violence and how this rise in violence might lead to an extremely high number of deaths given corrections staff shortages.

Even when the Prison administration would report that the inmates under their care had adequate out-of-cell time, they inflated the numbers, according to court documents and multiple people affected by the criminal justice system.

The prolonged locked downs have exasperated mental health issues faced by incarcerated people. This, combined with reported failures on the part of Corizon Correctional Healthcare to diagnose and treat appropriately chronic physical, mental health, and substance abuse issues raised by inmates, has further exasperated many of the driving forces behind the high number of people dying in Philadelphia’s prison system.

Further complicating the picture is the prevalence of illicit drugs and other contraband inside the prison, including personal cell phones.

Ebony Chambers asks the question, “if we haven’t been able to visit our loved ones, where are they getting the drugs and contraband?” Of course, the answer is obvious. They’re getting it from the staff.

Ebony believes that her son Rashaan Chambers’s consumption of K-2 while incarcerated may have contributed to her son’s death while in the custody of CFCF. Lewis Brown confirmed that Rashaan had recently smoked K-2 before the episode that led to his hospitalization and death.

But Rashaan is just one of many people who have died while in the custody of Philadelphia’s Prisons System that can either be directly or indirectly attributed to the consumption of illicit drugs.

Like so many issues these men and women are dealing with, this isn’t a new issue, but one that has stretched out over decades, with plenty of opportunities to fix the problem.

Correctional staff smuggling contraband like drugs and cell phones is just another stone on the mountain of systemic issues being brought out of the cut and into the forefront. Making it plain, the American model of incarceration isn’t the answer to our problems as a society but one of the causes perpetuating them.

But while those incarcerated in our city jails may have plenty of drugs and access to cell phones (at an Average cost of $500 a piece), they aren’t getting essential health, hygiene, and cleaning items.

According to court documents, the city was ordered to ensure that every inmate had at least four masks recommended by the CDC. Still, as recently as last week, inmates continue to report not having enough masks, some not having any masks at all, or having to make makeshift face covering.

According to multiple grievance forms shown to me by people impacted by the criminal justice system, some inmates were “made to wear the same mask for up to 3 months at a time” or “rip part of their bedsheets to make a mask to wear.”

According to court documents and multiple people impacted by the criminal justice system, in addition to not being “able to take showers for weeks” at a time, the prison has failed to regularly distribute soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, or toilet paper.

Protesters call for an end to the inhumane treatment of inmates held in Philly prisons, in front of CFCF in Philadelphia, PA, on April 30, 2021. (Cory Clark)

“I remember this one time me and my cellie didn’t have any toilet paper for three days, we had to wipe our asses with a sock,” said Brown. “At multiple point I couldn’t clean my cell for months at a time, because no one was bringing around supplies, I had to write multiple grievance forms, of course none of them were answered. They toss out our grievances on the reg.”

According to court documents, the failure to provide basic hygiene and cleaning supplies is widespread in the Philadelphia Prison System, with at least 53 housing units reporting regular toilet paper shortages.

These reports have come from various housing units in Riverside Correctional Facility Alternative and Special detention Central and Modular Units. The city holds pretrial women in their custody. In addition, “women have reported not receiving sanitary pads when they need them regularly,” said Adrian Parry, 43, a certified forensic support specialist with the incarcerated women’s working group.

“There are not only sanitation issues and infestations of vermin, but also delays in medical care, increase in violence, and a breakdown in infrastructure and operations,” said Yeh.

“People regularly go to bed so hungry it hurts,” said Brown. “You might lose 20 to 30 pounds in here, I try to make sure my cellies have enough to eat when we got 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 court filings, meals arrive either very late or early. You might get your lunch with your breakfast or with your dinner.

“There’s never enough to eat, and you never know when or if you’re going to get it; I lost a lot of weight while in here. It must have been at least 30 pounds,” said Cedric Brookings.

Another inmate who is supposed to receive prescribed protein meal supplements due to a gunshot wound to his face describes, “sometimes I’m so hungry I go to bed crying from the pain, I try to drink water to feel full, but I’m starving, because the shakes don’t come or are just stolen.”

When an emergency happens in a cell, the cells are supposed to have an emergency call button to alert corrections officers. Too often, those calls are ignored, or the buttons don’t work.

“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

“A guy hung it up last year, his cellie was on his gate for hours trying to get help before anyone came, dude was messed up after that,” said Norman Copper.

At PICC, it’s been reported for years that the doors can be opened easily by inmates.

“They use the mirrors from the commissary to crack the doors for themselves, they just swipe it like a credit card, and they pop open, but rather than fix them, the administration blames my officers,” said David Robinson, President of District Council 33, Local 159.

They fixed the broken lock by adding sliding bolts, which require corrections officers to individually disengage them in an emergency, which could cause people to die in a fire or some other disaster, much like the converted four-person cells at CFCF.

Inmates describe leaks, vermin, and flooding across the entire system of facilities, “The building has black mold, water marks on the walls, the place is really falling apart,” said Calar Braxton about the Detention Center.

“Last year, after a big storm PICC was flooded for two days straight, the smell was awful, but they wouldn’t do anything about it,” said Brown.

Protesters form a caravan around City Hall in Philadelphia to demand an end to the inhumane conditions in Philly prisons, in Philadelphia, PA on February 12, 2022. (Cory Clark)

For the more than 4500 moms, dads, brothers, sisters, human beings, these prisons are the stuff of nightmares, torture factories that return nothing but despair and broken bodies to our communities sooner or later. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Their courage exposes this nightmare, and we can make the city do something about it or at least make every second our neighbors suffer equally as painful for those in power until they do and hold those responsible accountable!

If you believe that human beings shouldn’t be treated like animals and that people impacted by the criminal justice system are still human beings, I hope you’ll follow the links below and step up to end this nightmare!

Human Rights Coalition

Straight Ahead

Decarcerate PA

Abolition Law Center

About Cory Clark 47 Articles
Cory Clark is a Photojournalist and writer focused on Human Rights and other social issues. His work can be found in hundreds of media outlets from Philly Magazine to Fortune. He has been a long time freelancer for Getty Images, The Associated Press, and Association French Presse. Cory, his wife, and son are residents of East Germantown.

1 Comment

  1. I have to say I’m heart broken and disgusted by the way we have and are treating our kin, our neighbors but I’m even more disgusted that people can read this and not feel the same pain and rage I feel about 5he condition these fellow human beings are forced to endure. But what should ai 3xpext from a society that refuses to 3nd homelessness and profits from treating people with substance abuses issues and suffering from poverty.

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