Philly’s federal prison sued over lack of facemasks, testing and social distancing

The city’s Federal Detention Center has so far reported zero cases of the coronavirus.

FDC
Alan Tu/WHYY

Federal prison guards in Philadelphia allegedly didn’t start wearing face masks until two weeks ago. Incarcerated people are allegedly forced into cramped conditions, and come into close contact with 15 to 20 people a day. Coronavirus testing is allegedly “nonexistent.”

Those are among the claims laid out in a lawsuit against Philadelphia’s Federal Detention Center and its warden.

The complaint, filed Wednesday in the U.S. Eastern District of Pennsylvania on behalf of three incarcerated persons, seeks their immediate release to temporary home confinement, plus official actions to mitigate health risks for those who remain confined at the FDC.

As coronavirus cases surge in Philadelphia’s correctional facilities, the plaintiffs characterize the roughly 1,000-person federal prison in Center City as a hotbed for a viral outbreak, due to the warden Sean Marler’s allegedly laggard response.

“The facility has been slow — dangerously slow — to adopt the basic life-saving precautions that have become familiar parts of life beyond its walls,” the lawsuit reads.

The Philadelphia FDC reports zero confirmed cases of the virus among inmates. The facility is following the Bureau of Prisons’ pandemic lockdown orders, which confine inmates to their cells for 23 hours a day among other measures.

Billy Penn has reached out for prison for comment on the suit.

The three plaintiffs are in their mid- to late-40s, and have been in federal custody for various durations. All three report underlying health conditions that put them at higher health risk for the virus, a circumstance made worse by the conditions they describe inside the facility.

Timothy Brown, Myles Hannigan, and Anthony Hall allege they remain in close contact with as many as 20 people a day — even under the prison’s restrictive lockdown measures.

“In addition, inmates frequently come into contact with surfaces that have been touched by many other people without being sanitized,” the complaint alleges. “Efforts to sanitize surfaces in the facility often cannot be performed because the FDC has insufficient supplies of disinfectant products.”

On personal protective equipment, or PPE, the claim specifically alleges “wearing of masks by staff and inmates did not begin at all until approximately April 1 and has never been more than sporadic.”

Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf did not order universal face-masking until Apr. 3, though many law enforcement agencies and prisons began donning protective gear sooner.

The plaintiffs, however, say the prison’s lack of action created an unnecessary risk.

“The FDC’s delayed and flawed implementation of quarantine protocols before April makes it highly likely the virus has already entered the FDC, in light of the timing of community spread in the Philadelphia area,” the complaint reads.

The claims are partially corroborated by other sources in the facility. Last week, corrections officers at the Philadelphia facility and other federal prisons filed complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration calling the response “lagging.”

In Philly and across the country, federal prison staffers who signed onto the complaint said they were told to continue reporting to work even after coming into contact with an infected person — which stands against most quarantine guidelines for containing the viral outbreak.

The petitioners are seeking a “class action” designation. The federal court system is currently running in a limited capacity, with no trials scheduled but hearings continuing for pretrial release and emergency relief petitions.

Other documents show judges in the U.S. Eastern District have cited the lack of confirmed coronavirus cases in the FDC as grounds for rejecting individual health-related petitions for early release. In recent filings, judges have also backed up the government’s claims that there are “significant measures to prevent and retard the spread of COVID-19 in the FDC.”

Philadelphia jails, where at least 54 people have tested positive for coronavirus, reported their first death on Tuesday. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, which runs the state’s 24 prisons, confirmed its first inmate death earlier this week as well.

Ben Geffen, a staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center, which filed the complaint on behalf of the inmates, said he’s skeptical of the reported case numbers.

“If you’re not testing something, a readout of zero doesnt’ tell you much,” Geffen told Billy Penn. “Even if there hasn’t been an outbreak yet, the fact remains that this disease remains present in our community, staff come and go every day, and it could spread extraordinarily rapidly given the conditions.”

The Public Interest Law Center co-filed the suit along with Dilworth Paxson LLP and civil rights attorney Jim Davy.

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