A federal judge yesterday ruled that the City of Philadelphia violated the constitutional rights of hundreds of city prison inmates last summer by packing them into police and prison holding cells without the basic necessities of life.

U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick, who heard testimony in the case last October, said the unconstitutional conditions including placing inmates for days in holding cells and in numbers that far exceeded the cell capacities.

Inmates slept "on concrete floors and on top of each other," the judge noted. Inmates also lacked for toilets, medical care and personal-hygiene items like soap and warm water.

In granting a preliminary injunction to the inmates represented by Penn law professor David Rudovsky, Surrick ordered the city to correct the conditions immediately.

As for the possibility of court-ordered releases of inmates, Surrick noted that under federal law only a three-judge federal court can order that remedy.

The judge also ordered the city to submit a fire marshal-approved fire-protection plan for the various police lockups for court approval.

"It is clear that overcrowding is at the root of the unsafe, unsanitary and unconstitutional conditions" at the city prisons, Surrick said.

Last night, Joseph Grace, Mayor Street's spokesman, said the administration would have no immediate comment on the court ruling. City Solicitor Romulo Diaz has received it "but has not had a chance to review it fully," Grace said.

Rudovsky, who noted the judge agreed with all of his clients' significant contentions, said: "The city has learned that it can't build its way out of this problem. They need to find a more intelligent way of managing the population."

For example, he said, "hundreds of inmates" are being held because they can't post small amounts of bail and "pose no dangers to the public." Those inmates can safely be released, he said.

"The judge was telling the city it had a crisis last summer and faces another one next summer. If it doesn't come up with a plan that works, the city faces the possibility of a three-judge panel," said Rudovsky, who represented city inmates in a state court lawsuit that ran from 1971 to 2002.

The city prisons have sustained a persistent ramping up in population for the last few years, a development that is straining the city budget and creating a stressful work environment for the correction officers who guard them.

In 2000, the city spent about $131 million on the system. This year, the budget was $194 million but that's likely to jump another $12 million by the end of June.

Last November, the city received a detailed report from a team of Temple University researchers under contract with the city to explain why the prison population has grown from close to 7,000 - when a federal judge in 2000 ended a long-running lawsuit against the city - to 8,900 on occasion.

City and court officials, along with prosecutors, public defenders and the police, have been discussing a series of policy changes aimed at moving defendants through the system more quickly and revising the court's pretrial release guidelines. Other measures under review include alternative sentencing and hiring more probation and parole officers. *