Protesting unsafe conditions in city jails, car caravan circles Northeast Philly facility

One of about 50 cars lined up driving down State Road outside Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility Saturday afternoon. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

A car caravan circled the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility Saturday afternoon to protest conditions inside Philadelphia’s jails. At least 50 cars honked their horns as they moved through the neighborhood and down side streets near the city Department of  Prisons facility on State Road in Northeast Philadelphia before heading down to City Hall.

Protest organizers —  the Human Rights Coalition, Abolitionist Law Center, and the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement — say most people incarcerated at the jails get out of their cells for one to two hours a day, equivalent to solitary confinement.

A car preparing to drive down State Road in Northeast Philadelphia, part of a caravan to protest the conditions inside Philly jails. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

A lawsuit filed last spring on behalf of individuals inside Department of Prisons facilities lists a number of other “unconstitutional conditions,” including lack of access to mental health services, excessive force by staff, denial of access to the courts, legal counsel and timely legal mail, and lack of access to necessary exercise.

Families protested for three weeks outside the city’s jails in May 2021, calling attention to the deteriorating conditions inside. In November, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported dire conditions, including flooding, mold, vermin infestations, and lack of adequate food.

The organizers of Saturday’s protest said those conditions are “business-as-usual” for Philly’s jails and have been exacerbated by the pandemic and severe understaffing.

Signs taped to a car joining the caravan in Northeast Philly. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

Mayra Torres of North Philadelphia has a son inside Curran-Fromhold. She said that they keep him locked in for days at a time, and that he can’t shower and sometimes misses meals.

Torres said her son will hear men suffering from mental health issues in nearby cells shouting, “Help!” and not receiving aid.

“It’s illegal what the prison is doing,” said Torres. “I want the mayor to respond. I want our City Council to respond. Because all they do is go out on the news and talk about the problem. It’s two years of this problem, and ya’ll still don’t have a solution? Why? Cause ya’ll don’t want to kick out the funding? Is that what this is?”

Torres participated Saturday to remind local officials that those inside have a network of people who love and care for them.

John Thompson, an organizer with the Abolitionist Law Center, said he survived more than 13 years in solitary confinement. It took time to heal from the lasting trauma caused by such confinement inside Pennsylvania prisons, he said.

“It took me years just to be able to adjust to let anybody stand behind me,” said Thompson. He listed other lasting effects, like “getting angry for just the smallest little thing that you should not get angry about.”

John Thompson, an organizer with Abolitionist Law Center, sitting in a car leading the caravan through Philadelphia to protest unsafe conditions inside Philly jails. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

Inside Philly jails, he said, people can’t clean their cells because they’re not given cleaning supplies and they’re not given face masks to protect themselves from COVID-19. Thompson also said guards are using pepper spray “at the drop of a dime.”

A sign taped to a car in the caravan in Northeast Philly, protesting the conditions inside Philly jails. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

The Philadelphia Department of Prisons did not respond to a WHYY News request for comment before publication.

A report by PennLive estimated there were 11 deaths inside Philadelphia jails in 2020. Overall, Pennsylvania jails experienced the highest rate of death in at least 20 years in 2020. Of those deaths, nearly 40% were because of suicide. A 2014 report by the American Civil Liberties Union said solitary confinement led to increased rates of suicide and the dramatic “deterioration” of people with severe mental illness.

Organizers of Saturday’s protest said suicide rates for those in solitary confinement are at least double those of incarcerated community members in the general prison population. Recidivism rates are also higher for those who have spent time in solitary confinement, the organizer said.

Andre Simms is an organizer with Care, not Control and the Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Program. He was incarcerated at the age of 17 for eight years.

He said people are waiting inside Philly jails for months just for their first court hearings.

“People in State Road right now are actually considering pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit because they’re tired of suffering on State Road,” said Simms.

Maxine Morris, Luna Jung, and Andre Simms organize with Care, not Control, and the Youth Art Self-Empowerment Program. Jung said the youth need to be nurtured, rather than punished and forever defined by their mistakes. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

Protest organizers said the solution to ending the deteriorating conditions is to stop filling the jails altogether and invest in alternative and rehabilitating, rather than punitive, initiatives.

“We’re demanding that we contribute resources to the root causes of the problem and not just the arms,” said Simms. “The drugs, the violence, these are all consequences of something bigger that we have not been addressing.”

Thompson said some steps along the way include building a civilian oversight board that can hold prison officials accountable, lowering bail costs, and not incarcerating people for minor probation offenses.

Cars lining up for the caravan on Saturday afternoon nearby the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

Care, not Control organizers are also fighting to end the practice known as “direct file,” in which a prosecutor files charges against a juvenile directly in adult criminal court.

It’s about “replacing punitive and punishment with care,” Simms said.

A sign taped onto one of the cars protesting the conditions inside Philly jails. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

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