Philly Commissioner of Prisons Lou Giorla and Warden William Lawton in front of the House of Correction.

💡 Get Philly smart 💡
with BP’s free daily newsletter

Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

In the kitchen of the Philadelphia House of Correction in Northeast Philly, dozens of inmates clad in blue wear pants, gloves and hair nets as they clean dishes from the previous meal. It’s unbearably hot in here. Hard to breathe. Fans do little in what’s by far the hottest place in the un-air conditioned building in Holmesburg, its home for more than 100 years.

Down the hallway are the 12 cell blocks where 1,464 inmates live today. In rooms originally meant for one person, many now have three beds — a small bed, and a bunk bed. Each room is shared by the inmates, who also take turns on one toilet, looking out one window that’s one of just a few ways to cool off in the beating heat. Meanwhile, rusting pipe systems line the wall. They’re exposed, and every pipe is a potential weapon.

Officials in Philadelphia have discussed replacing the old, dilapidated House of Correction for the last 20 years, but for whatever various reasons (usually money), it never happened. Now, Commissioner of Prisons Lou Giorla, who is retiring in January, is working with politicians to get the money the prisons need to build a whole new facility. And there are hangups.

This new facility that would serve as a replacement prison for the House of Correction comes amid a national conversation about prison reform and as the Philadelphia system is itself working to study its own population and figure out what low-level offenders don’t need to be locked up before trial.

In Giorla’s ideal world, a space of land would be a bought adjacent to the current prison complex, a prison design approved and construction started in the next two to three years. He’d also like to see the prison population shrink, instead of bloat, as many think it would do if a new facility with more beds is built. But Giorla knows there are obstacles.

“We’re not interested in increasing the size of the prison system,” he said. “We’re not interested in being the city’s premier department. But we have standards, ethics and accepted correctional practices we need to meet.”

What the old prison looks like now

Giorla gets that no one wants to spend money on a prison. He conceded that many people don’t have air conditioning in their homes. Soldiers overseas don’t have air conditioning in many of their barracks. Why pay for even low-level inmates like the ones in House of Correction to have it?

Because, he says, it’s not just about the temperature. And it’s not just about the inmates.

The issues with the House of Correction is somewhat of a laundry list, the layout itself being one of the main problems, Giorla told Billy Penn in a tour of the facility. For one, cell blocks lead into a main rotunda area that is indoors and not meant for recreation. Inmates travel through here for meal time and at other times during the day, creating a high-congestion area with a lot of milling about, passing each other, potentially creating trouble. Guards try to keep the peace, but with just one of them for every six inmates, it gets testy.

One of two main rotundas in the House of Correction. Each opening leads back to a cell block.
One of two main rotundas in the House of Correction. Each opening leads back to a cell block. Credit: Bobby Chen/Billy Penn

Back in the cell blocks — there are 12, each with a varying number of always-full beds — overcrowding is pervasive. Each cell was built for one person; many have three living in them. Across the Philadelphia prison system, about 1,300 inmates are in temporary housing because of a lack of space to keep them. Even if there were 25 percent less inmates in the system, Giorla contends the House of Correction would still need to be replaced.

The walls are literally falling apart, and even though they’re thick, the first layer of the walls is chipping off everywhere.

A prison cell at the House of Correction, a low-level offender facility in Holmesburg.
A prison cell at the House of Correction, a low-level offender facility in Holmesburg. Credit: Bobby Chen/Billy Penn
A window in the House of Correction.
A window in the House of Correction. Credit: Bobby Chen/Billy Penn

One of the major issues though with keeping inmates and about 500 employees safe is the exposed piping and other work that’s across the prison. Giorla said correctional officers have daily inspections of inmates and cells to check for hoarding of wires or pipes. These could turn into ad hoc weapons.

Prison Commissioner Lou Giorla points to exposed piping that’s directly next to prison cells in the House of Correction.

Other issues with the cell block are evident. Showers are old, and ceilings that were once glass that let in natural light have had to be cemented because they were crashing in. But officials say it makes sense. Parts of this building date back to the 1874 presidential term of one Ulysses S. Grant.

“I feel like I do the best job I can to keep it serviceable,” House of Correction Warden William Lawton told us. “But it is a task.”

The entrance to the shower area in a cell block in the House of Correction.
The entrance to the shower area in a cell block in the House of Correction. Credit: Bobby Chen / Billy Penn
This ceiling was once glass and has had to be cemented in over the years due to age.
This ceiling was once glass and has had to be cemented in over the years due to age. Credit: Bobby Chen/Billy Penn

In addition: the House of Correction isn’t equipped for handicapped visitors, so any time a grandmother in a wheelchair drops in to see a prisoner, special accommodations must be made. It’s also tough for elderly or ill inmates during the summer months, because of the extreme heat inside the facility.

A major concern is that there is no automatic locking system, so in the event of a fire, guards would have to unlock every individual cell and let out the inmates. There’s also no sprinkler system. The facility also lacks all the video surveillance it needs to be in compliance with federal mandates meant to curb sexual assaults in prisons.

Meanwhile, 500 employees (who can’t shower during the day or take a nap like the inmates can) endure the rising temperatures in the summer and, in other cases, the frigid temperatures in the winter. In the dining room area of the jail, many meals during the winter must be taken into the cell blocks because it gets so cold in the only room with dozens of small windows.

Where inmates receive their meals from in the dining room.

Giorla and his staff looked at upgrading the HOC instead of building another facility entirely. Before all is said and done, those upgrades could have totaled $100 million. Buying a new tract of land for $7 million and starting from scratch seemed prudent. And because of overcrowding, it’s nearly impossible to renovate large parts of a facility at one time, because there’s nowhere to put the inmates.

Giorla wants the city to get it done before a federal court mandates it has to, and then nothing is done on the city’s terms. Once the House of Correction is replaced, he says, it would never be used again.

“We want to wreck it,” he said. “Burn it. Destroy it. Demolish it. Close it.”

What can be done

Credit: Bobby Chen/Billy Penn

Giorla, along with Councilman Bobby Henon and other politicians in favor of constructing a new prison, took a lot of heat in June when Henon was set to introduce a bill that would have authorized a discussion about purchasing a plot of land adjacent to where the current facilities in Holmesburg are. There are currently several prisons there that are part of the system, including the Detention Center, which will also need to be replaced in coming years. But Giorla said it’s not as dire as the House of Correction.

Opponents to the purchasing of the land had a number of concerns, namely that the deal to purchase the land seemed shady. The company that owned it, called 7777 Philadelphia PA Loan Associates, is essentially anonymous to the public. The 58-acre parcel of land was owned by BNP Paribus bank, which lent $31.6 million to Churchill Residential Development L.P. several years back because the group expected to develop the area. But that group defaulted in 2012, and BNP assumed ownerships of the plot of land.

That bank bid $100 on the property at Sheriff’s sale, because it knew no one else was interested. After that, BNP assigned the bid to 7777 Philadelphia PA Loan Associates LLC, and the transfer tax was paid at Fair Market Value from there at $7.3 million, so now that’s the price the city is proposing to pay to own the property. The company is also behind on its taxes.

Other advocates against a new prison want to see the city’s money spent on the education system and not creating a school-to-prison pipeline in Philadelphia by adding more beds in city jails that would inevitably be filled if they’re constructed. Giorla rejected those concerns, saying money for schools and money for jails comes from different sources.

In June, Henon tabled his bill that would have set in motion discussions to purchase the property where the new prison would be constructed. But Giorla says he expects it to be re-introduced in the fall, and there’s an $8 million line in the year’s upcoming budget to pay for the land needed.

No, they really don’t want the prison population to increase

Homicide and violent crime rates have dropped dramatically in Philadelphia in the last several years, largely because of new, targeted programs that find offenders before they’re committing the most dangerous of crimes. But less offenders on the streets often means more inmates in the prisons. More than 8,000 inmates are currently housed in the city prison system.

To care for an increased number of inmates over the years, the city budget for the prison system has swelled. A 2011 Pew report shows how:

This year, Mayor Michael Nutter proposed an overall prisons budget of $244,896,000.

The Philadelphia Prison system has a statistical analysis team that is now working to figure out how to decrease the number of prisoners by figuring out which inmates don’t *need* to be locked up before they go to trial, whether that’s because they’re non-violent, small-time drug offenders, first-time criminals, elderly or frail, etc.

The team at the prison system is completing this analysis now through a $150,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation, just the first part in what could become a multi-year, multi-million dollar grant to look closely at the prison population and implement programs to decrease it.

Giorla said people seem to think that more than half of the prison population doesn’t need to be locked up before trial because they’re low-level offenders. He disagreed with a characterization that high, saying that low-level offenders doesn’t equal law-abiding citizens. With some people coming into the same prison facilities eight or ten times, something has to be done to house repeat offenders. But others do fall into the category of “don’t need to be here,” including many who have mental illness or are drug addicted. At this point, 32 percent of the prison population in Philadelphia is receiving some sort of mental illness treatment.

So right now, Giorla said the statistical performance unit is working through the data and trying to find ways to best compare their numbers with the numbers in the court systems. Once they have the data together over the next year, they’ll submit it along with a plan back to the MacArthur Foundation, and hope to be one of 10 cities chosen for a second round of funding.

“We will have a prison population going into the future that’s one we believe and hope is on a downward trend,” Giorla said. “Regardless, we have to replace the House of Correction.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.