‘Scared for their lives’: Inside the coronavirus outbreak in Philadelphia’s jails

People inside tell of dangerously cramped conditions, lack of cleaning supplies and lots of infighting.

The correctional complex on State Road in Philadelphia.

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

The last thing Andre Coach saw before he left jail was a riot.

It was April 3 at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, one of four city jails. Over 120 incarcerated people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in these county detention centers to date — more than every state-run prison in Pennsylvania combined.

Coach says life had been untenable for weeks under the Philadelphia Department of Prisons’ pandemic lockdown to quell the spread of the virus. City officials maintain all inmates are taken out of their cells once per day, but Coach and others said they sometimes went two or more days without reprieve.

On his discharge day, Coach saw the anxieties erupt into chaos.

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Locked in their cells, he said his fellow inmates tried to break their windows. They banged on the bars. They pleaded with the guards to let them out to escape the potentially fatal respiratory disease that was spreading all around them — or at least to let them shower and call home.

“They were scared for their lives,” Coach said. “They were trying to break out of their cells.”

City officials said the “minor incident” was quelled, with one guard sustaining a hand injury. But the disruption sheds light on how conditions in the county’s four main correctional facilities have deteriorated under the pandemic lockdown measures — and how the city’s reported handling of the situation diverges from the experiences of those living there.

Last week, Mayor Jim Kenney commended the prison system for being “extremely proactive in establishing procedures and protocols for this virus.” But interviews with more than a dozen currently incarcerated people and newly returned citizens, as well as their family members, advocates and attorneys, paint a different portrait of life under lockdown. WHYY and Billy Penn are withholding some last names, because people are fearful of reprisal or are still awaiting trial.

Beyond the issue of cell time, many other of the protocols established by the Department of Prisons to keep inmates and guards safe have been sporadically implemented, they say. Social distancing is undone by cramped conditions in some facilities like The Detention Center, where over 20 men are crammed into one room. Sanitization is infrequent and supplies limited throughout the four jails.

Unlike Coach, who completed his sentence for a 2019 conviction, most incarcerated people at these facilities on State Road face a partially shut-down court system as they wait for their next day in court.

As of April 16, 91% of the men and women being held at the four jails have not yet been convicted of a crime.

Since the pandemic hit the region, Philly has lagged behind other cities in decongesting its crowded jails. The population, now under 4,000 people, has been reduced by roughly 17% since March 16. Much of the holdup lies in the hands of the court system, and some have already taken legal action against other prison systems to demand release.

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Protesters parked their cars around the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia in mid-April to demand prisoners be released for their safety during the coronavirus pandemic (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

‘They think we got it. We think they got it.’

Coronavirus protocols at the Philadelphia Department of Prisons began in early March with ending in-person visitation. Each week has brought new restrictions to life behind the walls of the four correctional facilities.

The First Judicial District, the state-run court system that tries criminal cases in Philadelphia, came to a screeching halt on March 15. With communication limited to phone calls and letters, anxieties ramped up among the inmates at his facility, Coach said.

“The mail has been slow to get in and out and it’s been difficult to know if they’ve been receiving their mail,” said Ruth Shefner, director of the Goldring Reentry Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, many people WHYY and Billy Penn spoke with said the wardens left them mostly in the dark, and information about the pandemic that made it onto the cell blocks wasn’t reliable.

“Some guards were lying to us, telling us it wasn’t there yet,” Coach said. “Then we’d leave [our cells] and see all the guards wearing facemasks, and we put two and two together.”

The city confirmed its first case of coronavirus among the prison population on March 26. It wasn’t clear how the individual became infected — but the news immediately sparked new tensions between guards and inmates, like those that continue to escalate in correctional facilities nationwide.

“They think we got it. We think they got it,” said Michael, a former inmate at The Detention Center, who asked that his last name be withheld because he has yet to be convicted of a crime.

The day after confirming a positive COVID-19 case, the Department of Prisons enacted a system-wide lockdown, restricting cell block movement and keeping inmates in their cells for more than 23 hours a day.

Other conditions worsened around Coach, he said: The food delivered to his cell came uncooked. Throughout the four jails, case numbers grew each day.

Sitting up in his cell at night, Coach often wondered if he would make it out to see his fiancé and two children again.

The Department of Prisons made a few changes to help people weather the increased isolation — for one, free postage. The night before Coach was discharged and the inmate protest broke out, the guards gave everyone two pre-paid envelopes to write home.

“They never give us a free letter to the family,” Coach told his cellmate.

His cellmate turned to him.

“This is the last letter you’ll get to write to your family,” he said, according to Coach.

The Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on State Road in Philadelphia (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Social distancing in a room with 20 people?

Some facilities pose worse threats than others due to their layouts.

In February, after watching news reports about the coronavirus reaching the Delaware Valley, the men in Andrew’s cell block at The Detention Center became acutely aware of an immutable fact: social distancing would be impossible.

Inside the dormitory-style cell blocks at the jail, up to 30 men live in the same space. Everyone shares everything.

Showers. Toilets. The TV remote.

“And people were really unhygienic there,” said Andrew, 25, whose last name is being withheld because he is still awaiting trial.

Dread has fueled fights in the crowded rooms, he said.

Before the jails’ coronavirus measures went into effect, Andrew’s cell block organized a one-day hunger strike in February, hoping to grab the attention of the center’s warden so they could air their concerns. It worked. She showed up. But Andrew said it was a one-way conversation.

“She was fighting us the entire time,” he said.

With help from the nonprofit Philadelphia Bail Fund, Andrew was released on April 10. By then, he said some of the men had been split up and sent to live in spaces with 10 other prisoners instead.

Michael, who transferred to The Detention Center in April after having heart surgery, has a cell to himself in the infirmary. But with cramped conditions all around, the 45-year-old worries about getting infected and, in his weakened state, being unable to fight it off.

“There’s nothing they’re going to be able to do about the coronavirus if you got that many men congealed in one spot,” Michael, who remains at the facility today, said in a phone interview.

“We didn’t come to jail to die,” he said.

Inmates and their advocates also criticize the lack of social distancing when people are released from their cells to make phone calls or take a shower.

Phone booths are typically side-by-side and much less than six feet apart from one another, including those at Riverside Correctional Facility for women and juveniles. An inmate at Riverside, a woman in her 40s with underlying medical conditions who had been transferred to a hospital, became the first county prisoner to die from COVID-19 last week.

“I have been organizing around decarceration and communicating with folks inside of facilities and different places for about nine years now, and never in my life have I heard the kind of things that people are saying right now to me,” said Cara Tratner with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund.

The Department of Prisons’ policy states every inmate is given cleaning products with bleach solution to be able to disinfect their cells, but people incarcerated at three of the four facilities told WHYY and Billy Penn there isn’t enough of it. A city spokesperson countered that supplies are sufficient.

Riverside Correctional Facility on State Road in Philadelphia (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Coronavirus treatment soars, other medical care takes a backseat

Philadelphia’s prison system was one of the first to do on-site coronavirus testing, and advocates say the county has done a commendable job of getting infected prisoners admitted to community hospitals for treatment — something that hasn’t always been easy elsewhere in the state.

But inmates and advocates say that focus has cost prisoners with other medical needs, like Jay.

Jay, who asked to have his last name withheld to protect his privacy, is a transgender man housed at Riverside. He personally knew the woman who became the first inmate to die after contracting coronavirus in Philly’s jails — and he worries he could be next.

Jay, which is not his legal first name, also has asthma. Since the pandemic hit RCF, it’s been nearly impossible to get an inhaler despite repeated requests, he said.

“Maybe it’s my anxiety that’s making me feel like my chest is tight, but my breathing has been very different since I’ve been wearing a face mask,” said Jay.

A woman who goes by “Sweet Pea” was released from RCF earlier this week. She said prisoners have not been able to see a nurse or a doctor if they don’t have coronavirus symptoms.

It’s also hard to get the attention of guards, many of whom Sweet Pea said have become more callous since the pandemic started.

“They act like we’re the germ. They came at us like we were the disease carriers,” she said. “They just treated us like dirt.”

Luz Acevedo was released from RCF to a halfway house in early April. She still shares a room with another woman, but no longer worries about whether she’ll wake up in the morning the way she said she did at Riverside.

“I was living in panic,” said Acevedo. “I feel so much better.”

‘We still have critical time’

The First Judicial District and other criminal justice officials have taken measures to reduce the population and the associated health risks, but more work remains to be done.

Civil rights attorney David Rudovsky said the current number of around 4,000 inmates is low for Philadelphia, which has declined rapidly due to changes under the Kenney administration. But it’s “still very high given the health concerns,” Rudovsky said.

People serving weekend sentences no longer have to report to State Road. All new inmates are now being separated from the general population for two weeks until they’ve been medically cleared. City judges are considering emergency motions to reduce bail and lift detainers for certain nonviolent offenders, including those who are in custody for technical parole violations.

Between April 7 and April 16, a rotating group of judges approved motions that released 536 prisoners from county jails.

The Philadelphia Bail Fund and the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund have bailed out another 169 people since mid-March.

Yet, that’s far slower than many other jurisdictions across the U.S. — and the infection rate in Philly jails continues to climb, often by double-digits each day. City officials currently report 61 COVID-19 cases inside the facilities, but that doesn’t count anyone who has tested positive and then recovered or been released.

Officials have also repeatedly refused to release a breakdown of how many cases exist in each of the four county correctional facilities, citing privacy concerns.

“The way that they are presenting the numbers is confusing, potentially misleading,” said Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, an organization devoted to monitoring conditions inside prisons and jails.

Whatever Philadelphia prison officials have or haven’t done yet, some feel the coming weeks represent a pivotal moment to spare more lives.

Said Rudovsky: “We will have some critical time.”

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