Prison plague

COVID-19 is ravaging Philly jails. But efforts to curb the spread are slow

Prison halls
Many city prisons are getting beat up with cases of COVID-19. However, the response from the city in fixing the issue has been slow. | Image: Carles Rabada

On Feb. 6, former state Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell began her prison sentence at Riverside Correctional Facility.

This was, in her words “before the shit hit the fan.”

During her time in the Philadelphia correctional system, Movita kept a journal detailing what was going on around her and took the initiative to mail her journal entries home from prison. 

Ironically, Johnson-Harrell was voted by her fellow inmates to represent her block and communicate with staff throughout the coronavirus pandemic. On April 1, various inmates chosen as “block representatives” from throughout the State Road facilities met with medical staff and leadership to raise concerns and answer questions about the general inmate population. 

Riverside Correctional Facility, the Detention Center, Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, and Curran-Fromhold all reside in a massive complex on State Road in Northeast Philadelphia. These prisons cumulatively housed 4,662 inmates the day before Philadelphia courts closed (March 16), as of April 29 the facilities held 3,718 inmates, a decrease of about 20 percent. 

Inmates of the State Road facilities are not “the worst of the worst.” Most State Road inmates are guilty of low-level drug offenses, non-violent crimes, or simply awaiting trial and can’t make bail.

According to city leadership, as of May 1, “58 inmates in the city’s prison are positive.” Managing Director of Philadelphia Brian Abernathy said “240 inmates have been tested, 192 have tested positive cumulatively.” Meaning that 80 percent of the inmates tested have tested positive. The methodology behind who gets tested remains unclear. 

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic social distancing, personal protective equipment, and basic hygiene are necessities for preventing the spread of the virus. When asked about social distancing in Philadelphia prisons, Abernathy said it was “difficult, if not impossible.” 

Throughout early April, masks were distributed to both correctional officers and inmates. These masks were made by the inmates from the same material as the inmates’ bed sheets at the State Road facilities. Prison bed sheets are notoriously thin with a thread count between 100 and 180.  

One correctional officer raised concerns about how sanitary these masks are, saying the masks were made inside the prison, which contains no fresh air. The facilities on State Road use recycled air.

Many inmates housed in facilities along State Road are guilty of low-level drug offenses, non-violent crimes, or simply awaiting trial and can’t make bail. | Image: Matt Ansley

“You’re making protective equipment for us in a contaminated environment,” the officer said. These masks have now become a mandatory part of CO uniforms. “We were told that we are not allowed to bring in our own PPE.” 

The prison has currently restricted masks for staff to the allotted “sheet masks” or pre-approved masks that must be “white, blue, or tan.” 

Before April 1, inmates were making masks “out of wash rags and shoe strings,” said Johnson-Harrell, who was considered an “essential worker” as a member of the inmate kitchen staff. “Women were taking beard nets, folding up paper towels and putting them inside the beard net and using that as a mask. … I don’t know when other units got their masks, but I got my mask the day before I left, which was April 7. So my unit got masks on April 6.” Johnson-Harrell was held in the G-unit of RCF two cells away from an inmate who died with coronavirus on April 14. Upon release, Johnson-Harrell said she tested positive for Coronavirus.

“A good job is not worth your health,” a CO explained while breaking the strict “no media policy” enforced by the Philadelphia Department of Prisons. 

Pandemic fear mixed with the implementation of a lockdown has worn down both inmates and COs. 

“The prisons were slow in their response to COVID-19. I wasn’t feeling safe in there with their procedures as far as (what) testing offers us and the inmates. I decided to get myself tested, and it turns out I was positive and just asymptomatic,” said one high-ranking CO. He went on to say “the inmates have it worse than us.”

“They made us pick and choose between using the phone or washing up. It was either-or. They would have us in chains and then escort us in chains that were used on other prisoners, but not sanitized.” 

– An inmate at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility under condition of anonymity

On March 23, the inmates were transitioned from their regular schedule, which grants six to eight hours outside of their cell to “restrictive movement,” which limits the number of people allowed outside their cell at a time. At RCF, this meant restricting movements to groups of 10.

One officer explained the transition: “Normally, there is one CO for every 63 inmates. Under restrictive movement, that went to groups of 10-20, then under full lockdown, it’s one CO for every 5-10.” The prison switched from restrictive movement to a full lockdown on March 30. 

The combination of sick officers missing work, officers who fear going to work for their health, and rigorous lockdown procedures are straining both inmates and officers. Under a lockdown, inmates are granted between 30 minutes and one hour outside of their cells, but due to the lack of staff, some inmates have been left in their cells for days at a time. 

“They made us pick and choose between using the phone or washing up. It was either-or,” said an inmate held in Curran-Fromhold. “They would have us in chains and then escort us in chains that were used on other prisoners, but not sanitized.” 

Malik Neal of the Philadelphia Bail Fund compared the lockdown conditions to “psychological torture.” The Philadelphia Bail Fund has posted bail for 115 people since March 16. Neal went on to say, “The conditions in Philadelphia jails are deplorable in normal times, and the fact that some city officials are trying to pretend that in the midst of a pandemic, these same facilities are now adequately addressing the concerns of those incarcerated is the height of absurdity.” 

“Employees who test positive are just being told to come back to work. For instance, employees were in the hospital with ventilators, hooked up to machines, and once they get out of the hospital, they are being asked to report back to work. That’s how bad it is, we’re not even getting re-tested.”

– Philadelphia corrections officer under condition of anonymity

Lockdown forces officers to work much more difficult shifts. Rather than supervising 100 inmates in teams of two, they must constantly rotate inmates to and from their cells. President of Union Local 159, which represents correctional officers, Greg Trueheart, said, “The prison wasn’t prepared, the city wasn’t prepared, and the world wasn’t prepared for this.”

Dr. Thomas Farley, commissioner of the Philadelphia Health Department, explained in a recent mayor’s daily press conference, “We do not have the ability to test everyone in the congregate facilities.” He regularly cites the lack of testing available, which comes from a combination of cost issues and production issues. 

“Employees who test positive are just being told to come back to work. For instance, employees were in the hospital with ventilators, hooked up to machines, and once they get out of the hospital, they are being asked to report back to work. That’s how bad it is, we’re not even getting re-tested,” said an officer who tested positive. 

Trueheart explained, “They can use personal time. If they are out of personal time, they can take leave without pay.” Correctional officers fear that taking leave without pay may cost them their jobs. Additionally, the officers are not receiving hazard pay. 

Prison leadership hasn’t been diligent about tracking the point of COVID-19 contact. In fact, one CO tells PW, “Contact tracing is not happening.” | Image: Larry Farr

On April 24, Eric Hill, a business agent for Local 159, formally addressed the prison leadership about concerns regarding contact tracing. “Contact tracing is not happening,” said one CO.

Commissioner of Philadelphia Department Prisons, Blanche Carney, responded by laying out the guidelines set forth by the prison system and Prison Safety Officer Patrick Gordon. Officers and union leadership are not confident that these guidelines are being followed. 

Inmates, the officers who guard them, union leadership, and groups like the Pennsylvania Prison Society & Philadelphia Bail Fund all cite “lack of transparency” and “poor communication” as major factors in prison conditions. Carney’s office declined to comment for this article. 

The state of Pennsylvania does not fund any formal prison oversight. The Pennsylvania Prison Society is the only independent organization providing oversight for the PA prisons. The Pennsylvania Prison Society is a nonprofit that employs eight people. Of those eight, there are two employees tasked with monitoring conditions for 76,000 inmates across 25 prisons. 

To put that into perspective, New York State funds the Correctional Association of New York, which is given $127,000 annually to provide oversight for the 48,000 inmates in state prisons along with an annual $2.9 million for oversight of the 8,000 inmates in New York City prisons. 

Lack of oversight, combined with a delayed response to the coronavirus, has turned the Philadelphia prisons into a vessel of fear, illness, and confusion. How do you protect yourself from a virus when social distancing is not possible? How do you restrain an inmate without touching them? How can you know that you’re safe without adequate testing?

Only hindsight will reveal the full effects of the virus. As Americans experience unprecedented isolation through quarantine, inmates of Philadelphia prisons are experiencing even harsher conditions than they likely ever expected. Correctional officers fear for their safety and the safety of the families that they go home to each night while the union fights for clarity on their behalf.