Ten people incarcerated in Philadelphia’s county jails are suing the city on behalf of the entire prison population over the pandemic-born conditions behind bars, where more than 120 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus to date.
The complaint, filed in federal court on Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and three other legal groups, seeks sweeping changes by the Philadelphia Department of Prisons to better protect the nearly 4,000 people still in its custody.
If conditions can’t be brought up to the standards of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the plaintiffs are asking a judge to release all inmates who are over 55 years old or have underlying health conditions that make them especially vulnerable.
City officials report one COVID-related fatality among inmates to date, while 43 correctional officers in the city’s prison system have also tested positive for coronavirus.
The suit follows similar legal action taken by people incarcerated in Philadelphia’s federal prison, which has yet to report a single case of coronavirus among its roughly 1,000 inmates.
Allegations in the new complaint mirror those detailed in a recent Billy Penn and WHYY report on conditions inside the city’s jails over the last month, including soaring anxieties about social distancing. People behind bars described overcrowded rooms, or being confined to cells for days at a time while being forced to choose between a shower or a phone call in their small window of time outside it.
In the suit, plaintiffs say there’s a lack of sanitation supplies, soap and medical care, and that shared phones are improperly cleaned. All of this makes the jail population “uniquely vulnerable” by the overcrowded facilities, the complaint alleges.
“The current conditions within PDP’s facilities create an extreme risk for rapid, uncontrollable spread of COVID-19 among the incarcerated population, correctional officers, health care workers, and beyond jail walls to the larger Philadelphia community,” the suit reads.
All 10 plaintiffs are at heightened risk for the coronavirus due to their age or underlying health issues, according to the complaint.
“You need to make changes that are along the public health guidelines — social distancing, providing soap and cleaning supplies,” said Su Ming Yeh, director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, one of the legal advocacy groups behind the suit. “If that’s not possible, and it very well may be, then the best thing to do to protect the individuals is to release them.”
The city has reduced its prison population by 17% over the last month, and the court system is now ramping up hearings for emergency motions to reduce bail and lift detainers for certain nonviolent offenders, including those who are in custody for technical parole violations.
Officials have maintained that sanitation supply lines are adequate, but Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy acknowledged the complaints about the cramped conditions.
“It is difficult if not impossible to social distance within [the jails] — we recognize that,” Abernathy told reporters Monday. “We are doing what we can to… follow guidelines to make sure inmates and staff are protected given the difficult living situation.”
The new federal complaint, filed in the U.S. Eastern District of Pennsylvania, also includes allegations of inadequate medical screening among inmates.
Saddam Abdullah, a 29-year-old plaintiff incarcerated at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, reported experiencing multiple symptoms that could have been the coronavirus — including chills, cough and loss of smell and taste. Yet because he showed no fever, he claims he was never sequestered from the general population.
“He had not just one but three symptoms, and that situation was not properly addressed,” Yeh said.
The plaintiffs also claim that the current situation “exacerbates the disproportionate impact the virus has had on people of color,” who make up 88% of the incarcerated population at the four facilities on State Road. As of early April, African Americans also made up a disproportionate share of the fatalities linked to COVID-19 in Philadelphia.
Philly-based law firms of Dechert and Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin are also representing the plaintiffs in the proposed class action case.