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Can Philadelphia Correct … our Corrections?

The City’s new approach to the drug trade in Kensington could send increasing numbers of people to city jails. How will that square with the prison department’s ongoing staffing crisis?

Can Philadelphia Correct … our Corrections?

The City’s new approach to the drug trade in Kensington could send increasing numbers of people to city jails. How will that square with the prison department’s ongoing staffing crisis?

Cherelle Parker told voters during her mayoral campaign that whatever path she took in Kensington, things would run through the police commissioner. The mayor’s first executive order — empowering police to use “any lawful means necessary” to dismantle the open-air drug markets — reinforced that.

Now it’s not just the mayor: A vocal coalition inside City Hall is demanding a more aggressive approach in Kensington, a message that’s grown substantially louder in recent weeks.

“You’re either going to treatment, or you’re going to jail,” City Councilmember Mike Driscoll, one of four members of Council’s newly formed “Kensington Caucus,” said in a recent article in the Kensington Voice. Days later, Parker named a hand-picked community coordinator for Kensington. Marnie Aument-Loughrey’s appointment came after she voiced nostalgia for the high-arrest era of Frank Rizzo.

Apart from a battle that’s fiercely brewing over the efficacy of these shifting priorities, the mayor’s stepped-up enforcement — expected to begin in April — is about to collide with another harsh reality: Philly jails can’t handle a major role in this pivot.

That’s according to multiple sources, including a federal watchdog appointed by the judge who heard a 2020 class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of prisoners. In the court order stemming from that lawsuit, the Philadelphia Department of Prisons (PDP) agreed to allow an outside monitor to evaluate its improvements. So far, progress has been negligible.

“Exposure to extended periods of isolation, institutional violence, squalor, and neglect breach all standards for humane confinement,” Monitor Cathleen Beltz wrote in her most recent report. A former assistant inspector general in Los Angeles County, Beltz also identified a root cause for concern: “PDP is plagued by acute and deeply problematic operational and cultural issues, many of which must be resolved internally.”

If the jails are already struggling this mightily, running rampant with reported constitutional violations, then what will happen when the Kensington arrests begin?

Understaffing has left the jails in disarray, according to multiple news accounts, a years-long trend driven by Covid-related factors that are plaguing correctional departments across the country. In the simplest terms, the Great Resignation left thousands of vacancies in the ranks of prison and jail workers nationally, resulting in more dangerous conditions for prisoners, which in turn burdened the dwindling staff, thus making the vacancies more widespread and even harder to fill — a vicious cycle.

Here in Philly, deteriorating conditions inside the jails defy a success story often told about efforts to right-size the local corrections system. In June 2015, one month after Jim Kenney won the Democratic mayoral primary, the city housed 8,100 people in its four jails. By the start of Kenney’s second term, that number had been reduced to 4,741 — a 42 percent drop helped along by $7.5 million in grants from the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. That number declined even further in 2020 as Covid ripped through the facilities, forcing PDP to release more than 1,000 nonviolent inmates from its jails to curb the spread of the virus. (Nationally, the incarcerated population fell 25 percent in the first half of 2020, while in Philly, it reached a 35-year nadir.)

However, the emergency exodus was followed by an abrupt rebound when the courts fully reopened the following summer. Inmate numbers quickly rose back to pre-pandemic levels — not so for PDP workers, who had resigned in droves.

As of November 2023, the most recent available data, more than 800 out of 1,900 budgeted positions for sworn PDP officers are unfilled. There are now twice as many vacancies as noted in a June 2021 report by former Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, where she described a dire need for an “all hands on deck approach” to recruitment and retention.

Despite a push to fill those gaps, the numbers haven’t budged. Through a PDP spokesperson, the department noted its “far-reaching and robust recruitment campaign” in recent months, which has included ads on SEPTA buses, radio and streaming services (in both English and Spanish), and digital billboards. As part of the court settlement, PDP established hiring bonuses and raised salaries. However, the campaign to recruit new workers will conclude March 29, the spokesperson said.

All of this raises an important question: If the jails are already struggling this mightily, running rampant with reported constitutional violations, then what will happen when the Kensington arrests begin?

“Everything falls apart.”

In a city full of intractable issues, the state of PDP jails might feel like a low priority for many Philadelphians. While there are convicted criminals serving sentences inside the four Philly jails along State Road (one for women, three for men), the vast majority, some 91 percent, are being detained pre-trial. Once you receive a sentence of longer than two years, you typically go to a state or federal prison, which is the de facto image most people hold about jail.

Although Philly courts are now fully operational, postponements of court dates have plagued the system in the wake of the pandemic. There’s still a backlog of cases, combined with a shorthanded trial bench of late, resulting in long delays for many inmates awaiting their day before the judge. The average length of stay in jail for people arrested last year was more than 100 days.

“Commissioner Carney has continuously raised the issue of the 90 percent pre-trial population and the need for expediency in case processing,” a PDP spokesperson wrote in a statement. Unclogging the system, they added, “will avoid increased length of stay and thereby safely reduce the population.”

“PDP is plagued by acute and deeply problematic operational and cultural issues, many of which must be resolved internally.” — PDP Monitor Cathleen Beltz

Getting people before a judge is key. Across the country, jails are a place where people end up for lots of reasons, such as parole violations and bench warrants, not only arrests for alleged crimes. There are inmates who’ll come to court and get parole, others whose cases will be tossed, and still more who’ll eventually end up in diversionary programs. (Not to forget the wrongfully-accused.) While they wait, they must endure the conditions laid out by Monitor Beltz.

“[Philadelphians] should be concerned with what goes on up there, because when these people come out, you want them to be in a frame of mind where they really don’t recidivate,” says Leon King, former commissioner of the Department of Prisons from 2002 to 2008. “That’s what happens when you let them rot. They get out and they cause a problem.”

King speaks from personal experience — not only running the PDP decades ago, but also briefly being on the other side of the bars. As a college student in the early 1980s, King found himself in a holding cell after being arrested for stealing a moped, staring down a two-to-three year sentence for grand theft auto, based on the charges. However, the district attorney trying his case ultimately asked for probation instead of jail time. “If he had sent me there for another two weeks, I would not be where I am today. I would have been a mess,” King recalls.

That anecdote clarifies why the PDP workplace challenges are of broad public concern. Beyond the anxiety of knowing that people are escaping from State Road, as four did last year, there’s the lifelong damage being done to prisoners, which will make their reentry into society more fraught — risking a rise in long-term recidivism. Research has indicated a correlation between the longer a person stays behind bars and a higher risk of rearrest, along with worse conditions resulting in greater risk for recidivism.

As the threat of more drug arrests looms in Kensington, unsafe jail conditions threaten to undo some of the city’s coordinated work of decreasing the population in the first place.

“When the jails are dangerous, and the staff know they’re dangerous, they’re not going to do anything to unduly put themselves at risk. So everything falls apart.” — Leon King

And then there’s the trauma of unionized staff, who have complained in news stories and City Council hearing last June about now-commonplace 16-hour shifts riddled with mental anguish and physical abuse. Fatigued workers fear for their safety — with no cavalry coming to help. Throw in the shortfalls among maintenance and medical staff, and the PDP workforce is in a “dire” state, according to Beltz, one that’s recently led to inmates going days without showers, a rise in homicides and contraband, unattended medical emergencies, and a number of high-profile escapes by prisoners.

The DA’s investigation into one escape last year found the following: A guard left his security booth early that day after being forced into doing overtime; another guard dozed off on the job and falsified his inmate counts. The two men, recaptured a week later, weren’t reported missing for 19 hours.

“When the jails are dangerous, and the staff know they’re dangerous, they’re not going to do anything to unduly put themselves at risk,” says King. “So everything falls apart.”

Since the federal monitoring began in 2022, Beltz has found ample civil rights violations stemming from critically low staffing levels. Inmates are routinely denied basic services like out-of-cell time, meals and medical care. Meanwhile, prison-on-prisoner violence is on the rise, along with overdoses. (On the day this story was published, an inmate was pronounced dead after being killed in a fight with his cellmate on State Road. It was the third death inside the jails so far this year.)

PDP Commissioner Blanche Carney.

Last year, the union that represents PDP correctional officers voted no confidence in Commissioner Blanche Carney, who has led the department since 2016. Parker’s administration did not respond to a question about whether the Mayor is considering a leadership change. King, on the other hand, didn’t blame Carney; rather, he criticized the man who hired her.

“I blame Jim Kenney,” King says. “It’s the City’s fault in my view, because the City needs to get the prisons more resources — to go out there and help with recruiting the neighborhood. When I was there, we went to the churches, the social clubs, the bars, stuff like that, where people [who worked at] the prison had a connection. Not just the same thing where you sit down and have people enter their name on a computer.”

We have to choose

Economic factors beyond local control make for a difficult path in filling the hole at correctional departments around the nation. Amidst a private sector boom, the pitch to join the ranks of PDP remains a tough sell. State correctional officers in Pennsylvania are paid nearly $20,000 more annually than the national average but have struggled with the same staffing issues post-pandemic, raising questions about bonuses and pay raises as a long-term fix. What’s also concerning is that the population reduction in recent years did not yield cost savings within PDP, suggesting a system that’s not only failing, but also inefficient.

Michigan is implementing one creative solution. The state’s House of Representatives created a new law allowing retired correctional officers to come back to work without interfering with their pension. However, it’s yet to make a significant impact, as Michigan’s prisons and jails still report dangerously low staffing levels. Colorado has resorted to making social workers and teachers inside the state prisons double as security guards, a strategy that seems problematic to say the least.

Beltz, the federal monitor, while noting that workforce issues remain elusive, suggested an alternative path: “suspending intake for specified groups of new arrestees until PDP’s count decreases to a manageable level.” What wasn’t even entertained, however, was the risk of a new influx of inmates joining the system.

As for the impending pivot in Kensington, a PDP spokesperson refused to comment on whether that strategy will further strain the system: “It is speculation and it is not possible to address that assumption since the plan is under development.”



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