Philly controller says urgent action is needed to fix short-staffed, ‘unsafe’ jails
City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart speaks at a press conference to discuss conditions at the Philadelphia Department of Prisons. She's seen with City Councilmember Kendra Brooks (left) and officials from AFSCME District Council 33 and the Pennsylvania Prison Society.JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Updated Jun 29, 2021
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After a year of pandemic-related lockdowns and elevated violence that left many workers fearful, the Philadelphia Department of Prisons’ staffing levels have reached a critical point.
That’s according to City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, who held a news conference Tuesday afternoon to urge the mayor and managing director to address a situation she said is endangering both workers and incarcerated people.
“The Department of Prisons is at a tipping point,” said Rhynhart, who was joined by City Council members, the union representing correctional officers, and the Pennsylvania Prison Society. “They need to hire over 300 correctional officers now.”
Rhynhart said that’s based on numerous reports from workers; her office’s analysis of operations, staffing levels, and incidents of violence at the jails; and her own observations during a visit to the jails last week.
“When you go into the housing pods at CFCF, inmates are screaming, begging to talk to their families, screaming to be let out,” she said, describing Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, the city’s largest jail for men. And workers, she added, “are scared for their lives.”
The department was already short-staffed going into the pandemic. Then, about one in six staffers left during the last fiscal year. That left the department 382 people short of the 1,884 needed to fully staff the jails, according to the department’s official post plan.
That has hampered daily operations at the jails, which were locked down at the start of the pandemic under a protocol that allowed people just 45 minutes a day out of their cells. Staffing issues — which Commissioner Blanche Carney has largely attributed to workers failing to show up for shifts — resulted in some people being locked in without a shower or phone call for days on end.
During that time, a string of homicides in the jails left five men dead. “In the previous eight years there weren’t that many,” Rhynhart said.
She emphasized that staff call-outs did not account for the short-staffing and that addressing attendance would be impossible until more workers were available to ensure a safe working environment.
The jails are currently under court order to provide at least three hours of daily time out of cell.
However, AFSCME District 33 Local 159 president David Robinson, whose union represents the corrections officers, said that’s been accomplished only by bringing in night-shift workers early, thereby leaving units understaffed for hours each night.
“People are working alone all the time,” he said. Incarcerated people have repeatedly reported having to bang on doors or scream for hours in understaffed or unstaffed housing units to get help during medical emergencies.
The department’s most recent class of recruits was just 22 people, Rhynhart said. “The Kenney administration needs an all-hands-on-deck approach to do a massive recruitment and hiring plan immediately.”
The Pennsylvania Prison Society reported that complaints received from Philadelphia jails doubled from March to April, and doubled again in May.
“When there are severe staffing shortages and people in cells are unable to access their basic needs, showering, phone calls, it’s going to increase likelihood of violence,” City Council member Kendra Brooks said, adding that some staff are fearful to go to work. “Our colleagues in corrections that work in the prison need to know they are going into a safe working environment.”
City Council member Helen Gym said action is needed not only from the city but also the courts to reduce the prison population, which is currently higher than at the start of the pandemic at close to 4,600.
More than 90% of those in the jails are currently pretrial. The average length of jail stay, as of May, was 271 days — compared with 189 days going into the pandemic in March 2020.
“This is an issue about the safety and security of the city of Philadelphia,” Gym said, adding, “This is an emergency situation.”