Lawyers for the City of Philadelphia began working yesterday on how to respond to a federal judge's ruling ordering the city to immediately improve prison conditions and reduce overcrowding.

City Solicitor Romulo L. Diaz Jr. said his office was "in the process of evaluating" the "difficult issues" raised by Thursday's order by U.S. District Court Judge R. Barclay Surrick.

Ruling in a suit on behalf of 11 city inmates filed in July by David Rudovsky, a Philadelphia civil rights lawyer and University of Pennsylvania professor, Surrick called city prisons so bad that they violate the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Surrick wrote that many of the city's inmates - 8,900, a thousand over the prison system's capacity - lacked beds or bedding, toilet and shower facilities, and medical care.

Surrick ordered the city to immediately begin providing those amenities and reduce the time that detainees spend in police district lockups. Some city prisoners are convicted and serving sentences but more than half are awaiting trial, held because they cannot afford bail.

Rudovsky called Surrick's opinion "thorough and persuasive."

"The ball is in the city's court now. Their choice is to go forward and deal with this or appeal, and eventually they will lose," Rudovsky said. "We are willing to work with the city."

Diaz did not say how the city might respond - it could appeal - but none of the options is easy.

Compliance will be expensive and mean building more prison cells, reusing the closed Holmesburg Prison, or leasing cell space when available from prisons in adjacent Pennsylvania counties.

Diaz maintained that, since Surrick conducted an injunction hearing in October, the city had moved toward improving living conditions and health care in police lockups and the prison system.

If the city appealed, it could trigger a new era of litigation similar to the one that resulted after a 1971 overcrowding lawsuit was filed against the city.

That suit put the city prisons under federal court oversight and resulted in periodic court-ordered prisoner releases to relieve overcrowding.

Court oversight ended in 2000 when there were about 6,900 inmates, principally because of the 1995 U.S. Prison Litigation Reform Act.

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.