Inmates, family decry COVID-19 conditions in jail

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Vincent Chapolini’s COVID-19 symptoms got so bad he could barely make it to the toilet.

When he began complaining to prison staff about cold-like symptoms, he said they blew him off. He wasn’t tested for the virus until around July 10, when someone on his block was diagnosed.

Then, he, along with about 25 other inmates, were moved earlier this month to a closed facility at the city’s State Road prison complex. There was mold in the cells, and shower drains were severely clogged, he said.

“You could tell it wasn’t used in a long time,” said Chapolini, who’s behind bars after being charged with more than a dozen burglaries.

A city spokesperson declined to discuss Chapolini’s medical situation directly, but officials said the building being used as quarantine space, known as the Alternative and Special Detention unit, was ready to house inmates.

“It has certainly been certified and was prepared to be operationalized,” Managing Director Brian Abernathy said Tuesday, adding that the unit had only been vacant for a few months.

The Philadelphia Department of Prisons has the ability to open and close the ASD as needed, Kelly Cofrancisco, a city spokesperson, told Metro.

TJ Henderson, whose fiance was moved to the facility after his positive COVID-19 test result, said she’s been told the ASD is not equipped with a camera or sprinkler system. The building is filled with mold and asbestos, she said.

“It’s just inhumane,” she added. “It’s disgusting.”

Henderson did not want her fiance’s name released based on the advice of his attorney. He is being held on serious charges and has not experienced significant symptoms of the virus.

Phones at the ASD did not work for several days after the move, which worried family members, and inmates have not been able to have unrecorded conversations with their attorneys, Henderson said.

She believes the conditions were cleaner and safer at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, the city’s largest jail, which is where her fiance and Chapolini were before the outbreak.

“I don’t really know what the thought process was,” Henderson said. “It’s all confusing.”

Abernathy said inmates should have access to secure phone lines to speak to lawyers and that the ASD is equipped to handle such calls.

Cofrancisco said the prison system will continue to use the ASD or any other facility as medically necessary.

Jails are considered potential coronavirus hotbeds because, like nursing homes and homeless shelters, there’s a large group of people living in close quarters.

Cases inside the city’s prisons had tampered off prior to this most recent outbreak. Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said samples were taken from 64 inmates in a single unit after one developed symptoms and tested positive.

Twenty-three received positive results, and none had symptoms, he said. Officials said they weren’t sure why some inmates, like Chapolini, who have complained about feeling ill haven’t been counted as symptomatic.

Farley said Tuesday that he hopes the cluster of cases at the jail “is behind us.”

City data indicates that 26 inmates are currently infected with the coronavirus and that the ASD’s population stands at 30.

“I think the prison has done a decent job of stopping the spread of the disease,” Abernathy said.

A total of 457 city inmates have tested positive since the start of the pandemic. Universal testing was conducted at the jails in late May.

Unlike state prisoners, most of the people incarcerated at the State Road complex in Holmesburg have not been convicted.

Many are waiting for their days in court, which has been disrupted due to the spread of the virus.

Chapolini was jailed in January and has a preliminary hearing scheduled for Sept. 15.

“A lot of us aren’t even convicted,” he said. “A lot of us aren’t even guilty.”

There is no way to social distance behind bars due to space limitations, Chapolini said. Right now, they spend 23 hours in their cell and get one hour to shower, talk on the phone and walk around, he added.

Chapolini said the prison system wasn’t prepared when COVID-19 hit, and he believes they are still “winging it.” In his opinion, everyone who can be safely let out should be released.

“When does life preservation outweigh justice?” he said. “There’s a lot of people here who may not wake up tomorrow or they may not wake up next month.”

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