Last August, the city settled a class-action lawsuit regarding overcrowding and poor conditions in the Philadelphia Prison System, which was built to hold around 6,500 inmates but had housed 9,885 at its peak. Now, less than a year later, advocates say the population is once again climbing to an alarming number.
It’s no mystery what’s causing it. Recent tough-on-crime measures — particularly the creation in April of a Bench Warrant Court targeting those who skip court dates with higher bail and often jail time for contempt, along with Mayor Michael Nutter’s demand, issued in January, that the District Attorney’s Office step up prosecution of and seek higher bail for those found with illegal guns — are driving the increase, from an average of 8,033 inmates last year to 8,692 as of last week, according to prisons spokeswoman Shawn Hawes.
The new policies are also forcing the system to resort to some of the same practices that triggered the suit in the first place — in particular, triple-celling, which involves packing in inmates three to a cell by requiring one to sleep on a plastic “blue boat” cot on the floor.
“We’re very concerned that we’re going to have to go back in and deal with this issue again, when we thought it was resolved,” says Angus Love, of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PAILP).
Some advocates say the recent criminal-justice measures were put in place to fend off bad publicity (like the 2009 Inquirer investigation into the courts, “Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied” and this January’s killing of a purported witness by a man out on bail from illegal gun charges) without considering the impact on the strained jails. Indeed, the inmate population is up 8 percent from last year’s average, while its fiscal 2013 operating budget is up just 0.3 percent.
Others question the efficacy of these measures in the first place.
With its creation of Bench Warrant Court, “the court system has reacted to the articles in the Inquirer some years ago,” says David Richman, a lawyer at Pepper Hamilton and one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the prison-crowding class-action suit, Williams v. City of Philadelphia. “The merits of pursuing people for defaulted bails can be debated, but what can’t be debated is the necessity of taking into consideration the impact on the Philadelphia jails of launching a crusade like this. … There is, I would say, a lack of a coordinated response to the needs of the community, and there’s a burden put on the Philadelphia Prison System and its inmates which is, at the end of the day, unfair and oppressive.”
Currently, the Philly jails house 335 inmates with contempt convictions stemming from the new court, according to Chip Junod, director of criminal justice prison population management at the Philadelphia Managing Director’s Office. While some inmates might now be in jail for other reasons, such as not making bail, “it’s not only a coincidence that our population went up when it did,” Junod says.
A visit to Bench Warrant Court, Municipal Court Judge Joseph Waters Jr. presiding, shows just how efficient a sentencing machine it can be.
Those coming before Waters are shuffled in one at a time, often outfitted for the jobs they’re due at later, such as a Domino’s Pizza uniform or hospital scrubs. Many, after a minute or two of defense from a harried court-appointed lawyer, are given increased bail (which they may or may not be able to make) and are found in contempt, most often with a five- to 10-day sentence and parole after five days. Contempt convictions are given unless the excuse for missing court is ironclad: “I had a job interview,” “I had to watch my kids,” “I was at a funeral” and “I was in rehab” all did not cut it on one recent morning in court.
With 47,000 bench warrants out in Philly, according to Waters, court runs five days a week. Last Friday, 58 cases were on the docket; Tuesday had been the busiest day of the week, with 90.
“This isn’t Motel 6. You can’t check in whenever you want. There’s been no respect for the system, because there have been no consequences,” Waters says. He says before the court began, some defendants would arrive for trial, see that the prosecutor had witnesses on hand, and leave. “The purpose here is to get everyone’s attention, and to get the word on the street that you have to come to court.”
He says early numbers indicate a degree of success, but not everyone thinks it’s working.
“The contempt hearings are not making Philadelphia any safer,” says Stuart Schuman, chief of the municipal court division at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. “Since most of the contempt sentences are being imposed on misdemeanor cases and not violent crimes — where defendants usually don’t make bail in the first place — what the contempt sentences are doing is costing the city more money for increased prison population.”
Furthermore, Schuman says, defense lawyers rarely have enough time to interview their clients or investigate their reasons for missing court. “We have seen quite a few cases where defendants who have understandable reasons for missing court such as being in the hospital … in another courtroom or even jail have been convicted,” he says. “If the lawyers had time to prove these facts, there would be no legal basis for a contempt finding.”
In any case, says Su Ming Yeh, managing attorney at PAILP, failure-to-appear rates don’t seem to be improving. “In some ways, it deters people from turning themselves in, because they know they will be locked up and be given a higher bail,” she says.
There are similar concerns around the efficacy of the crackdown on illegal guns. The city reported a 22.6 percent increase in individuals jailed on illegal-gun charges in January 2012 over January 2011, and a 16.5 percent increase in February. Nonetheless, the city’s murder rate is up 12 percent from last year, the highest it’s been since 2007.
Meanwhile, inside the jails, conditions have improved since Williams v. City of Philadelphia was filed in 2008, according to Junod. Renovations have been completed, and prisoners no longer spend as much time restricted to their cells. Alternative-sentencing programs have been stepped up, and Junod says the city is trying to identify more candidates for 200 electronic-monitoring anklets it recently acquired. Triple-celling, he says, has been restricted to one site, Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.
As to how many inmates are now triple-celled, Hawes couldn’t say. She estimates anywhere from six to 180 inmates on a given day. Prisoners’-rights advocates contest that number: “Even when [the population] was down below 8,000 they were triple-celling,” says David Rudovsky, a lawyer with Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg who helped file the Williams lawsuit. “To not have triple-celling would probably mean bringing the number down below 7,000 or increasing facilities.”
PAILP’s Yeh also points to the dormitories at the Detention Center as a cause for concern. There, 26 to 28 inmates share rooms without air conditioning; the former day area has also been converted into a dorm, she says. “It can be very grueling.”
Rudovsky says lawyers will decide later this summer whether to take action again.
Regardless of whether the city will once more face legal action over prison crowding, it has a series of related challenges to face down beginning next week.
On July 23, the trial begins for the first of some 500 court cases filed by inmates who say they contracted ailments due to prison conditions — such as infections related to unsanitary conditions or orthopedic issues from sleeping in the blue boats — or faced damaging delays in treatment. “All of the claims are connected to the overcrowding issue,” says Gerald Williams, a lawyer at Williams Cuker Berezofsky representing the plaintiffs. Of course, he admits, “The city would contest that.”