Philadelphia's jails are so overcrowded and dangerous that they violate the constitutional rights of inmates, a federal judge ruled yesterday.
In a scathing 76-page ruling, U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick ordered the city to immediately provide prisoners with clean cells, toilets, showers, beds and medical attention, as well as to dramatically reduce the time that suspects are kept in police lockups.
City jails will again be put under court monitoring - as they have been for most of the last 35 years.
Surrick, who toured the city's Curran Fromhold Correction Facility last month, said the "unconstitutional conditions . . . required detainees to sit and sleep on concrete floors."
"The conditions include the failure to provide beds and bedding, the failure to provide material for personal hygiene including soap, warm water, toothpaste, toothbrushes and shower facilities, unsanitary and unavailable toilet facilities, the failure to provide for the medical needs of detainees . . ."
Yesterday's ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed last year on behalf of 11 prisoners by University of Pennsylvania law professor David Rudovsky. The suit was the latest to be lodged against the city prison system. In 1971, Rudovsky filed a similar suit and the city jails were put under court monitoring that ended in 2001.
"The city is ordered to immediately take affirmative steps to redress the unconstitutional conditions," the ruling reads. It also gave Philadelphia 15 days to meet with the plaintiffs to work out details on court monitoring of the jails.
It was unclear how the city would respond to the order. The City Solicitor's Office did not respond to a request for comment, and other city officials could not be reached.
Rudovsky last night said that he was "pleased that the court was persuaded to intervene in this continuing Philadelphia jail crisis."
"We're hopeful that the city will now come up with both short- and long-terms solutions to the pressing problems," he added. "The city cannot build its way out of this problem. It has to find ways to manage the prison populations without spending millions and millions of dollars more each year for bricks and mortar."
In July, when the latest suit was filed, the city had 8,900 people in custody, 1,000 over capacity. Furthermore, conditions in the city's prison system, which houses suspects awaiting trial and inmates with sentences of less than two years, "were deplorable and life threatening as any we've seen in the past 35 years," Rudovsky said.
In the ruling, Surrick found that holding facilities across the city was overflowing. The judge said many of the inmates were being held in police lockups "for days beyond when they were supposed to have been sent to prison."
Blasting the city's repeated failure to adequately house prisoners, Surrick said the current suit "raised nearly identical claims of overcrowding, resulting in unsafe and unsanitary conditions" as those pointed out in the 1971 suit. In addition to Curran-Fromhold, which the judge visited, Philadelphia's other major correctional facilities are the Detention Center, the House of Correction, Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center and the Riverside Correctional Facility.
Surrick quoted Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson as saying that "people should not be held in police facilities, because [the Police Department does not] have facilities for showers, for beds and for anything else like that."
The police lockups at Police Headquarters and in district stationhouses were firetraps, the judge found.
There were "combustible materials" around the holding cell at Police Headquarters.
A fire safety expert for the plaintiffs testified that the jails did not have sufficient fire-protection systems.
Furthermore, fire drills were not conducted as required at Police Headquarters, and the districts appeared to have "no emergency plans at all," the judge wrote.
It was not until three months after the suit was filed that "the Police Department issued a memo concerning fire drills to be conducted an unspecified times at the Police Detention Unit," the judge wrote,
Surrick also cited testimony from inmates.
One of the 11 prisoners involved in the suit "lost 15 pounds during a 5-day period in which he was in custody, and suffered dehydration and soreness from sleeping on a concrete floor," Surrick wrote.
Another prisoner who suffered from Parkinson's disease and AIDS "was denied medication with the exception of one dosage during the four days he spent in police custody."
He eventually was taken to a hospital where a nurse told police that he needed medication every eight hours. After that, Surrick wrote, "he was never taken back to the hospital and never again given medication while in police custody."
While waiting to get assigned to a regular cell at Curran Fromhold, "detainees were forced to sleep overlapping one another and on every inch of concrete floor," the judge wrote. "Prisoners slept with their heads next to the toilet."
The inmates would "spend three, four, five, or six days . . . without bedding provisions, sleeping, if they could, on metal benches or directly on the concrete floor."