Riverside Correctional Facility on State Road in Philadelphia

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More than 75% of people tested in Philadelphia’s jails have contracted COVID-19 or are presumed positive, according to new city data.

The new data suggests an infection rate rivaling other prison systems nationwide. Health experts have said the full scope of the outbreak among incarcerated people has yet to be fully understood.

Out of 248 people tested in Philly jails to date, officials confirmed 192 positive results. Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney noted that number includes some tests that returned inconclusive and were then treated as presumptive positive. Two other inmates with symptoms refused testing.

Of those who fell ill, most have recovered, Carney said. She confirmed 17 people who tested positive have been released from custody. One was relocated to the city-run quarantine site at the Holiday Inn in Center City, which only this week began accepting formerly incarcerated people with the virus.

These results add to mounting evidence that infection rates behind bars could be leagues higher than current numbers suggest.

Philadelphia has been reluctant to institute a universal testing policy, instead testing only inmates with apparent symptoms. Officials cite the widespread shortage of test kits and materials, and say internal lockdown measures at the four county correctional facilities are effective enough.

In suburban Montgomery County, for comparison, officials recently tested all 948 people in lockup. What they uncovered was rampant asymptomatic spread: 177 tests came back positive. Only six had shown any outward symptoms.

Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy said the city is dealing with the situation by taking extreme caution. “We’re treating everyone as if they’re positive within the prisons,” he said.

Epidemiologists argue more testing is needed to learn more about how the virus is transmitted — and how to best mitigate the outbreak in congregate settings.

“We can learn a lot from testing in this environment,” said Aimee Palumbo, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Temple University. “In an environment like a jail or prison, those asympiotic people are equally important, because they can spread it.”

Across all Pennsylvanians who have been tested for the coronavirus, about 20% have returned positive results, compared to three-quarters of those in the jails.

Fewer than other cities, or just a numbers game?

Over 90% of people in city custody have not yet been indicted for a crime. The city cannot legally hold inmates who have tested positive for the virus once a judge deems them eligible for release.

Carney said everyone discharged from city jail is given two face masks and guidelines on how to quarantine, but the majority of people who contracted the virus in jail remain there today. Of those, 124 people are considered to have recovered — which the prisons declare after two weeks and five days in isolation without showing telltale COVID-19 symptoms.

An ACLU-backed lawsuit alleges that in some cases, the Philadelphia Department of Prisons failed to test even those inmates who had shown symptoms. Incarcerated men and women echoed those claims in a recent Billy Penn and WHYY report.

Health experts say the 75% infection rate even among incarcerated persons who have been tested is concerningly high. The federal Bureau of Prisons found a similar rates among 2,700 inmates tested nationwide, the AP reported Wednesday. Philadelphia’s federal prison, in Center City, had reported zero official cases last month, which civil rights groups attributed to the fact that officials had administered zero tests.

Philadelphia leaders counter that the scope of the outbreak at the city’s four jails is far less severe than in other jurisdictions. Philly recorded just one death among its jail population, while the virus has killed 7 and sickened over 800 in Chicago’s county jails, for example.

But based on Montgomery County’s testing experiment, the Inquirer projected up to 682 of the city’s roughly 3,650 inmates may be carriers.

Some critics also say Philadelphia also appears to be artificially lowering its count. Each day, city officials publicly report the “current” number of COVID-19 cases inside correctional facilities. That figure doesn’t include people who recovered from an infection, or those who were released.

As a result, the number of “current” cases each day appears stable, averaging around 60 a day for the last three weeks, even as the total number of positive cases has continued to grow.

For example, on Friday, Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley reported 58 inmates in isolation for the coronavirus — not the 248 inmates who have contracted it to date. By Sunday,

“I don’t understand why they’re reporting the numbers in such a confusing way,” said Malik Neal, director of the Philadelphia Bail Fund. “To me, it looks like a calculated attempt to give the appearance that things are under control.”

Abernathy, the managing director, said the numbers paint a more accurate portrait. “It’s important for folks who are worried about our inmate population to understand exactly how many patients are in isolation,” he said, “versus how many patients have cumulatively been tested over time.”

The prisons will begin releasing more data online beginning next week, officials said Friday.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...