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Philadelphia’s jail staffing crisis worsens, civil rights groups file contempt motion over inmate conditions

The contempt motion seeks $5 per prisoner per day in damages until two baseline conditions are met: CO vacancies are reduced to 30% of budgeted positions and all prisoners are getting at least an hour a day out of their cells

Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility

Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on State Road in Northeast Philadelphia is part of the city’s jail complex. The system has failed to remedy a years-long staffing crisis, resulting in what a federal monitor has found to be ongoing unconstitutional conditions. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)


By Samantha Melamed
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — Nearly two years after the city of Philadelphia settled a federal class-action lawsuit over a jail system so understaffed that prisoners were stuck in their cells 23 hours a day or more, the staffing crisis is worse than ever, according to city data.

Now, civil rights groups representing the more than 4,600 people incarcerated in the Northeast Philadelphia jail complex say the city should be held in contempt for its “pattern of systemic violations of the constitutional rights” of prisoners.

The contempt motion, filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia Monday, seeks $5 per prisoner per day in damages until two baseline conditions are met: correctional officer vacancies are reduced to 30% of budgeted positions and all prisoners are getting at least an hour a day out of their cells. That roughly $23,700 in daily fines, proposed to be payable directly to incarcerated people upon their release, would far exceed any sanction so far imposed during the lawsuit.

But lawyers for the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, Abolitionist Law Center, and for the civil rights law firm Kairys Rudovsky Messing Feinberg & Lin LLP say a hefty fine is warranted, given the harrowing conditions they say people in the jails are enduring.

David Rudovsky, one of the lawyers handling the case, said the proposed sanction aims to inspire the urgency the situation demands. “It’s been going on so long, with so many deprivations, that action has to be taken immediately on these issues.”

Four people have escaped custody within the past year — including two men who were able to sneak off a unit where a guard post was unfilled, leaving the lone staffer monitoring three areas at once. The chaos contributed to elevated violence and deaths, advocates say, including three homicides in the last six months.

A city spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

Nearly half the jobs are vacant

The most recent report from the court-appointed monitor, Cathleen Beltz, noted that the city has already agreed to extend its monitoring period into 2026 after failing to meet most of the benchmarks set out in the settlement.

Almost half of correctional officer jobs are now vacant, and the department’s overall job vacancy rate is 44%. At the same time, the prisons’ population — composed of people awaiting trial or serving short sentences — has risen to pre-pandemic levels.

“Frequent staff assaults, fights, stabbings, rampant contraband and extortion, and security breaches have been made possible or exacerbated by the staffing shortage,” Beltz wrote. “Any recruitment or hiring gains are negated by attrition and an expanding incarcerated population.”

The report said the city had made “noble efforts,” and recognized that the context includes a nationwide correctional officer shortage. But, it concluded, the city had adopted “a course of half measures steeped in bureaucratic and political rigidity with devastating consequences” for both prisoners and staff.

The results included unsanitary conditions, a backlog in off-site medical appointments due to insufficient transport staffing, and an inability to provide timely behavioral health care, according to the report.

Mayor Cherelle L. Parker on Monday named Michael R. Resnick the new commissioner to lead the Philadelphia Department of Prisons. He replaces Blanche Carney, who gave notice of her retirement a month ago. Carney’s last day was April 5.

Carney’s tenure had been beset by conflict with the correctional officers’ union, Local 159 of AFSCME District Council 33, which last year held protests and a no-confidence vote in Carney, citing unsafe working conditions.

Since then, the union and the city reached a new contract designed to fill more posts, and Carney succeeded in hiring more classes of correctional officers. But staff attrition and the rising prisoner population canceled out those gains, according to the monitor’s report.

Rudovsky said if the city can’t address its staffing shortage, it needs to reduce the jail population — potentially by enough to close one of its prison facilities. Court orders limiting the jail population have been instituted in response to previous civil suits.

“You can solve this issue two ways,” he said: “You can get more corrections officers, or fewer people in the prisons.”

Staff writer Anna Orso contributed to this article. This is a developing story and will be updated.


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