‘I don’t want to die in here’: inmates talk about conditions in Philly jails

(The Philadelphia Tribune)

(The Philadelphia Tribune)

This article originally appeared on The Philadelphia Tribune.

A pair of Riverside Correctional Facility inmates said they fear for their lives as the novel coronavirus spreads in Philadelphia jails.

The two women, who asked not to be identified, spoke in calls that were streamed online by the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund and other social justice groups Thursday afternoon.

“It is H-E-double L in here,” one woman said. “They had the whole third floor quarantined. This is not a good place to be if you have medical conditions. Like me, if I have a seizure, it’s really messed up because they take so long to get to you because everybody is scared in here. I don’t want to die in here. I just want to get out of here.”

The woman added that there are 61 people in her unit and that “it’s impossible” to social distance.

“It’s too many of us in here. And the phones are right next to each other. It’s not 6 [feet] apart. They won’t even let the cleaners come out to clean, to disinfect the phones and the tables and stuff, you know, to keep it down. It didn’t happen last night or tonight. It’s not like it’s supposed to be.”

The other woman echoed the sentiments of the first.

The second woman said she is a mother of five and grandmother of four.

“I don’t want to die in here,” she cried. “I know what crimes I’ve committed, but my crimes don’t carry a sentence of [the] death penalty. I already have complications. I don’t want to die in here.”

The inmates’ calls come as the Philadelphia Department of Prisons reports that 61 inmates in city jails have been confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus.

More than 4,000 people are currently imprisoned in city jails; 70% of them are Black.

For weeks, District Attorney Larry Krasner, the Defender Association of Philadelphia, community groups, legislators and others have urged Mayor Jim Kenney and the courts to take action to release some non-violent offenders and prisoners who are elderly or have serious health conditions.

The Kenney administration has said prisoner release falls under the purview of the courts.

Last week, after weeks of silence, court officials announced that they would begin holding hearings about the release of some inmates.

But Krasner and Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey said the courts aren’t moving fast enough and aren’t considering enough cases “to significantly reduce the jail population enough to stop the spread of COVID-19.”

Krasner, the Defender Association and activists have called on Gov. Tom Wolf to step in, saying he should use his reprieve power.

“It’s impossible to socially distance in our jails. The only way to [protect people]…is to massively reduce the jail population in Philadelphia and to do it quickly,” said Malik Neal, organizer with the Philadelphia Bail Fund.

Neal also asked for the community’s support, encouraging people to contact the courts and the mayor on social media.

“We need to show the courts and the mayor the urgency of this issue,” Neal said. “They need to hear our demands loud and clear.”

Cara Tratner, organizer with the #No215Jail Coalition agreed, noting that the issue especially affects Black people.

“I’ve been talking to almost entirely Black and Brown mothers who have families to get home to,” Tratner said. “This is literally a life or death crisis for thousands of people in jail right now.”

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