Union chief questions staffing level at time of Philly inmate’s suicide

 A Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility inmate hanged himself Tuesday.(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility inmate hanged himself Tuesday.(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A Philadelphia prison was short-staffed when an inmate, who allegedly tried to kill himself before, hanged himself in his cell Tuesday afternoon, the head of the city’s correctional officers union said.

The area at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility where the 65-year-old inmate died should have been supervised by two correctional officers, said Lorenzo North, president of Local 159, which represents the city’s 1,900 prison guards. Instead, just one was on duty, he said.

If correctional officers call out sick, take vacation days or otherwise leave their posts to handle other duties, North said, “The city must make every attempt to cover every post. So before any post becomes short, they’re supposed to call people in on overtime, if they have to. But they don’t do that.”

Instead, officials restrict movement, ordering inmates to stay in their cells, he said.

Officials confirmed the 32-cell pod where the suicide occurred — and where elderly and infirm inmates live — was on restricted movement when the inmate hanged himself.

During restricted movement, one officer supervises the pod while two or three others patrol between pods, mayoral spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said. Generally, staff restricts inmates’ movement twice a shift (there are three shifts a day) to give officers 30-minute meal breaks, Hitt and prisons spokeswoman Shawn Hawes said.

But Angus Love, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, said restricted movement is more common than that.

“When enough guards don’t show up, they just lock the joint down for the day,” Love said.

When Love and other prison reformers sued over prison crowding and triple-celling years ago, some argued that restricted movement was an overused abuse, depriving inmates of access to the recreation yard and other stress-relievers. Love said he asked prisons officials for numbers on how often they resorted to restricted movement.

“We never got a straight answer,” he said.

Hawes acknowledged that officials do additionally restrict movement “when there are issues with staffing.”

She couldn’t answer how often that occurs.

“Our attrition rate is up right now,” Hawes said, although she couldn’t immediately provide numbers. “We’re always recruiting.”

Hawes declined to release the inmate’s name, saying the prison hasn’t yet notified his family of his death. He had been at the facility since April 24, Hitt said.

He was the sixth inmate to die in a city prison so far this year, and the only so far ruled a suicide. Half of the 10 inmates who died in city prisons last year killed themselves, up from an average of just one or two inmate suicides a year, city data shows.

“While obviously one suicide is too many, Philadelphia has a very low rate of inmate suicides compared to other jurisdictions,” Hitt said. Philadelphia Department of Prisons “has been below the national average for five years at 35 suicides per 100,000 inmates. The national average is over 50 per 100,000.”

Hitt added: “To prevent suicides, we do regular cell checks and, when suicidal individuals are identified, they are placed under one-on-one direct observation until a behavioral health assessment is done. If the behavioral health assessment determines the individual is suicidal, the individual is transferred to the Detention Center for treatment and continued observation.”

Neither Hitt nor Hawes had details on North’s claim that the inmate had a history of suicidal behavior and should have been under observation.

 

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