“The locks have been severely compromised” : A look inside Philly prisons

An employee exits the complex of Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia.
REUTERS/Mark Makela

During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, District Attorney Larry Krasner, alongside state officials, made a strong push to clear out the prison system as much as possible to alleviate potential spread of the deadly virus. Between March and June of 2020, the number of those incarcerated in state prisons declined by 3,471, the largest drop in Pennsylvania’s history in such a short time, according to Gov. Tom Wolf’s office.

Now, those numbers are rising once again.

With courts back in session and the City of Philadelphia returning to a revised version of normalcy, the Philadelphia prison population is increasing closer to pre-COVID figures. According to a recent study by the Vera Institute of Justice, Philadelphia saw a 20 percent increase in inmate population from June 2020 to March 2021. 

As of Saturday, there are 4,659 adults incarcerated within the City of Philadelphia, and according to both local corrections officers (COs) and inmates, conditions within prison walls have been deteriorating. 

“The new terror spot is RCF,” says David Robinson, the President of Local 159, the union representing Philadelphia corrections officers, referring to Riverside Correctional Facility on State Road. “The doors can open whenever they want… the locks have been severely compromised, with the regular wear and tear.” 

A corrections officer who asked to remain anonymous explained to Metro that inmates often “use the trays they get to eat, rip them and then use them to pop the flimsy house locks.”

This sentiment was reaffirmed by Candace McKinley, the lead organizer for the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund: “We’ve heard from folks on the inside that cell doors do not lock, meaning that people can come and go as they please,” she said. “With the lack of COs and some units reportedly having no CO coverage at times, this is a particularly dangerous time for people held in RCF.”

Understaffing has plagued the Philadelphia Department of Prisons since the pandemic hit in 2020.

At times the institutions are so understaffed that units and blocks go unmanned,” stated Robinson. “Officers are actually forced to do multiple jobs at once. Officers have worked 20 or more hours… mandatory overtime everyday. These officers are burnt out and mentally drained. At any given moment you can have one officer on a unit with over 100 inmates.”

In total, there have been 1,479 asymptomatic cases within the Philadelphia prison system since the city began universal testing for prisoners in May 2020. In addition, there have been 305 inmates with symptoms who have tested positive. Currently, there four asymptomatic cases.

Inmates inside Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility. Charles Mostoller / Metro File Photo

According to Alim White, who was incarcerated in Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility for five weeks from May through July of this year, the facility was still operating on a near lockdown schedule this summer. “I was on lockdown for like two days… they don’t let us out, we get no rec time, none of that.”

Both the city and Robinson denied that inmates were on lockdown. However, an anonymous CO explained “they’re on lockdown when they should be or when there isn’t enough staff.” McKinley confirmed “we have routinely heard reports of folk just getting 15 minutes out of their cell a day.” 

White, also known as South Philly rapper “ACF Leem,” was incarcerated after being arrested on allegations of inflicting serious injury during a robbery, assault and other charges. He is currently awaiting trial. 

“I ain’t sleep at all, cause if somebody gets a medical call, and everyone’s yelling in their cell for medical (attention), they’re not going to come. They’ll come like 15 minutes later and the person’s going to be dead by the time they come,” White says

McKinley corroborated this sentiment.

“We have heard from the mother of one man held at CFCF who died from injuries in his cell where he and others around him were crying out for help and were ignored by COs.”

City officials have denied that anyone has died in CFCF during the time that White was incarcerated. Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility did not respond to Metro’s requests for comment.

And attacks do happen. A corrections officer at CFCF recently shared a video from 2019 of a CO being attacked, adding that many corrections officers and inmates feel unsafe in Philadelphia prisons.  

“I spent a week in PICC, it’s the worst jawn to go to cause people are getting picked (stabbed) in there,” Leem explained. When asked about stabbings, a city spokesperson explained that “PICC houses inmates with the most violent charges and fights do occur.” 

Leem, like many inmates in Philadelphia prisons, is currently awaiting trial. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 74% of inmates in city and county jails, nationwide, are being held pretrial.

With deteriorating morale amongst guards and continued understaffing issues, Robinson fears that conditions inside Philadelphia prisons could escalate.

“I hate to say this but it needs to be said, it’s just a matter of time before we have an incident such as the one that took place in Delaware a few years back,” he explained, referring to the 2020 riot at Delaware’s James T. Vaughn Correctional Center. “The union has continuously put these issues on notice. It’s time for the city and the department to take action.”

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