Philly prisons lift shelter-in-place measures, but COVID infections still on the rise

The correctional complex on State Road in Philadelphia.

The correctional complex on State Road in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Ask us about COVID-19: What questions do you have about the current surge?

After attempting to test every incarcerated person and staffer on State Road for COVID-19, the Philadelphia Department of Prisons has lifted the shelter-in-place measures it adopted nearly two months ago in response to a surge of coronavirus cases inside city jails.

“We will continue to monitor our numbers of positive cases and will increase time out of cell accordingly. The PDP will continue its mitigation efforts to keep staff and the incarcerated population safe,” said Commissioner Blanche Carney in a statement.

While shelter-in-place measures were in effect, prisoners were only allowed out of their cells to shower, use the phone and attend virtual visits with their attorneys. Prisoner rights’ advocates said some incarcerated people were only getting 20 minutes or less to complete those tasks.

Carney said prisoners are now getting 45 minutes out of their cells.

As part of an ongoing federal civil rights lawsuit over conditions inside the city’s four jails, U.S. District Judge Berle M. Schiller in December ordered the department to perform one-time coronavirus testing of all prisoners and staff members, including correctional officers and supervisors.

The results, released publicly on Monday, found that 1% of staff tested positive for COVID-19 — or 30 out of 2,594 people, according to the city.

The infection rate among incarcerated people was 6% — or 246 out of 4,077 prisoners.

“I’m glad the rate isn’t higher. Overall, the numbers are a helpful tool in determining how to ensure that people have more out-of-cell time and have adequate protections against COVID-19,” said Su Ming Yeh, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.

The court-ordered effort was the first time staffers were universally tested for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. Until Schiller’s ruling, the department did not require employees to get tested. And the total number of staff members who tested positive for the coronavirus were not listed separately from the city’s overall infection total, but incorporated into that figure.

It is the second time the department has attempted to test all of its prisoners.

In late May, weeks after another surge in positive cases, the city set out to test every incarcerated person, whether or not they were showing symptoms of the coronavirus. It found that 6% of incarcerated people without symptoms tested positive — or 220 out of 3,695 prisoners.

Despite the results this time around, the total number of positive coronavirus cases inside Philadelphia jails continues to grow. In just over a month, the overall number of infections reported by the Department of Prisons has gone up by nearly 200 cases.

As of Jan. 19, the most recent date for which data was available, there were currently seven symptomatic cases and 55 asymptomatic cases among prisoners.

One prisoner and one staffer have died from the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.

The test results also come as concerns remain about cleanliness inside the jails, the number of staffers wearing face masks on the job, and prisoner access to face masks and other supplies like soap.

Members of City Council have also taken issue with some of the prison department’s COVID-19 protocols, including its practice during the latest surge of using solitary confinement to separate infected people from others in their housing unit. They have also said the department is charging families too much if they want more time to video chat with their loved ones who are behind bars.

Starting Dec. 15, the city began offering families two free video calls a week lasting 15 minutes each. Under the program, they have the option of adding 30 minutes a week of video calling time, but only if they pay 25 cents a minute, or $7.50 for the entire half-hour.

“Keep in mind, we’re talking about family members who don’t even make $15 an hour,” said City Councilmember Kendra Brooks during a hearing in late December.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal