A stint in jail isn’t meant to be a vacation — most of us can agree on that. And that’s fortunate, because Philly’s largest jail, Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF), is no country club.
But the question that was being asked of jurors in Judge Norma Shapiro’s orderly 10th-floor courtroom in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania this week: Are the conditions at CFCF unconstitutional?
The case was Marcellous Minnick v. the City of Philadelphia, the first of a whopping 500-something civil actions brought by inmates who say the overcrowding and understaffing at CFCF, where some inmates sleep three to a cell, negatively impacted their health or violated their civil rights. The city has faced similar litigation before, but court-appointed lawyer Gerald Williams of the firm Williams Cuker Berezofsky says it’s probably the largest number of such lawsuits to be consolidated for trial in succession.
Minnick spent almost a year as a pretrial detainee; he’s still in jail awaiting sentencing. Before his arrest, he had been scheduled for a hip replacement due to a degenerative joint disorder. He wasn’t able to get the surgery, and developed a hernia and “severe dermatitis” (i.e. a rash) all while awaiting trial and sleeping in over-capacity cells. In his complaint, he says he was often confined to a “blue boat” — a plastic cot on the floor — 16 hours a day, since there was nowhere else to go during frequent lockdowns.
Jurors got a window into life in the jails via video depositions from experts who toured the jails and examined their records. Leonard Rice, a sanitation expert, showed photos of mattresses with no covers — just exposed, dirty foam — that were “way beyond the normal lifespan of a mattress” and of soiled canvas laundry carts “in deplorable condition.” He said insects and rodents are a frequent complaint, and observed “cumulative problems related to space, sanitary conditions and lack of cleanliness that’s chronic” and that “could be tied directly or indirectly to overpopulation.” And Madeleine LaMarre, an expert on prison health care, reported that inmates, confined to cells 10 to 12 hours a day, have no emergency recourse except for call buttons that are frequently ignored or disabled by guards. She said requests for medical care were often ignored or answered only after long delays, resulting in predictable “pain and suffering, and possible deterioration of their condition.” As for Minnick, who finally received surgery in 2011 — and received only Tylenol in the meantime — “he suffered unnecessarily.”
Jurors disagreed: They did find that the conditions Minnick faced amounted to unconstitutional punishment. But they said the overcrowding was related to a legitimate government purpose and that he sustained no injury, and so could receive no damages.
Amanda Shoffel, an assistant city solicitor, told the jury that Philly doesn’t think its prisons are “operating in a state of constant perfection.” But it’s trying to be “progressive and creative,” and is over time replacing and retrofitting showers and mattresses to meet modern sanitation standards. Whether such efforts will be enough to win over several hundred more juries remains to be seen.