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Multiple escapes highlight challenges in Philadelphia’s prison system

In the last year, the city’s prison system has dealt with several escapes, including the escape of four incarcerated people within a span of six months

Phillips State Prison

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

By Rodrigo Torrejón
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — In the last year, at least four people have escaped from Philadelphia’s city prisons, some briefly and others for days on end, shining a spotlight on issues in the city’s jails, including short staffing and increased violence.

After a year that saw multiple escapes, Blanche Carney, the commissioner of Philadelphia’s Department of Prisons, notified staffers she would be retiring next month and acknowledged some of the challenges the prison system has faced.

Here’s what we know about recent prison escapes in Philadelphia.

How many prison escapes have there been in Philly recently?

In the last year, the city’s prison system has dealt with several escapes, including the escape of four incarcerated people within a span of six months.

In May, Ameen Hurst, 18, and Nasir Grant, 24, broke out of Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, the result of multiple institutional failures that caused their disappearance to go unnoticed by correctional officers for nearly 19 hours.

First, the two manipulated their cell doors open, walked down the hallway, then crawled toward a door as another prisoner, also out of his cell, acted as a lookout. Hurst and Grant then crawled through a hole in a chain-link fence that had been cut weeks earlier.

Correctional officers didn’t notice the two were gone for more than half a day, partially because one guard fell asleep on her shift.

Hurst, who was accused of killing four people, and Grant, who was in custody for drug and gun offenses, were both caught within about a week. Four people were charged with helping Hurst and Grant once they got out.

In September, a 30-year-old woman briefly escaped from the same facility. Angie Molinuevo jumped a razor-wire-lined fence and landed on the other side, but was immediately apprehended by guards.

And last November, Gino Hagenkotter, 34, an inmate at Riverside Correctional Facility convicted of theft and drug charges, escaped while doing supervised work behind the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Complex in the Northeast. Officials said he asked his supervising guard for permission to use the restroom, then jumped the jail’s fence and fled through the neighboring sanitation plant.

After a weeks-long manhunt, Hagenkotter was found dead in a Harrowgate warehouse from an accidental drug overdose, police said.

What is the state doing to reduce prison escapes?

Philadelphia jails have been under review by a federal monitor for more than a year, as part of the settlement of a class-action lawsuit over violence, prolonged lockdowns, and staffing shortages alleged by civil rights lawyers representing incarcerated people.

The Philadelphia Department of Prisons did not admit to any civil rights violations in the agreement. Monitoring was extended into 2026 because the city’s jails failed to meet most of the court’s benchmarks by the end of last year.

What does the Philly Department of Corrections have to say about why the escapes are happening?

After Hurst and Grant’s escape last May, Carney asked the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to conduct a security assessment.

At a virtual City Council hearing on the matter last November, problems in the prison system were laid bare, including ongoing staffing shortages, a decades-old video surveillance system that is difficult to use and not monitored in real time, and external motion sensors that were not functioning when Grant and Hurst broke out.

In the past, Carney has also raised concerns with city officials about the flow of drugs, phones, tools, and other contraband into the jails.

Why is Commissioner Carney retiring?

Carney, who was appointed by former Mayor Jim Kenney , has been Philadelphia’s prisons commissioner since 2016 and was the first woman to hold the post. She informed staffers of her retirement on March 8, according to a letter she sent to her staff, and her last day in the role will be April 5 .

Last year, Local 159 of AFSCME District Council 33, the union representing Philadelphia correctional officers, cast a unanimous vote of “no confidence” in Carney, saying the jails were in a state of “chaos.”

According to a report from Pennsylvania Prison Society last year, violence in the system’s facilities had surged, lockdowns were frequent, and many men had not been outdoors in months.

In her letter, Carney acknowledged some of the issues highlighted by the report, saying her first four years in the role “aligned with collaborative efforts with criminal justice partners to reduce the over reliance on jails for marginalized” people, but said the coronavirus pandemic caused a massive strain on staff and incarcerated people.


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