One of two main rotundas in the House of Corrections, which was shut down in 2018 Credit: Bobby Chen/Billy Penn

On June 1, shortly before Philadelphia police officers tear-gassed a group of peaceful protesters on a downtown highway, Henry McDevitt and Nat Hilton were marching with Black Lives Matter demonstrators near 9th and Market streets.

There, they say, police officers saw the 20-year-old college students handling plastic bottles full of water and baking soda — a popular treatment protesters nationwide have used to flush the eyes of tear gas. To McDevitt’s and Hilton’s surprise, the police accused them of making chemical weapons of their own, and placed them in handcuffs.

Officers drove the duo around the city, looking for an empty holding station until they could be formally charged. Finding none, the police headed up to State Road in Northeast Philly where the city’s four correctional facilities are located.

But the two men would not end up in any of those jails.

Instead, they were brought to the House of Corrections — a long-closed, 666-cell detention center that the mayor and city lawmakers described as unfit for human life when they vowed to empty it two years ago. “The inhumane conditions are…undeniable,” Councilmember Bobby Henon said at the time. “The bottom line is there shouldn’t be a human being in the House of Corrections.”

In a highly unusual move that has baffled defense attorneys and prison reform advocates, McDevitt and Hilton were among at least 47 people housed at the decommissioned jail between May 30 and June 1.

Mayor Jim Kenney spokesperson Deanna Gamble said the police department needed the overflow space to hold newly arrested persons until they could be processed and transferred to the PPD’s Center City headquarters. Arrests surged that weekend amid protests and vandalism.

“All arrestees were held for less than 24 hours” at the House of Corrections, Gamble said.

Arrested people who spoke with Billy Penn described the holding facility as a slapdash operation that still showed signs of gross decay.

Mysterious fluids dripped from the pipes in the main cell block. Hilton and McDevitt were initially placed in a cell without a working toilet. Another man, who asked his identity be withheld as he is no longer charged with a crime, was locked in a cell with a broken window, shards of glass scattered all over the floor.

“They took our shoelaces and belts,” he said, “but left us with a bunch of broken glass.”

‘We have to get these guys out of here’

Gamble said the House of Corrections was temporarily staffed and operated by police officials on that evening, though people detained there said prison guards were also manning the facility, easily identifiable by their black uniforms. McDevitt, Hilton and the other detainees individually described corrections officers voicing concern over the ad hoc operation.

“Some prison guards kept walking back and forth the cell,” McDevitt said. “One of them kept saying, ‘This is really dangerous, we have to get these guys out of here.’”

FBI agents were also on site at the facility, interviewing the arrestees one at a time, they said.

People were initially held in the House of Corrections lobby, crammed into three holding cells with dozens of others before being taken to the jail’s ground floor cell block. They were provided masks, they said, but social distancing and healthy hygiene were otherwise impossible in the crowded holding area.

“No sinks, no hand sanitizer, no soap, nothing,” said one man who was kept at the House of Corrections for nearly 24 hours.

In the same holding area, one detainee reportedly had a medical emergency and had to leave on a stretcher. The Philadelphia Department of Prisons said it had no record of the incident.

From there, prisoners described being taken to another room for an interview with federal agents. Guards then led them to the main cell block for the evening — where the dungeon-like conditions appear not to have improved since its 2018 closure. The temporary inmates were given meager supplies to bide their overnight stays.

“They gave us mattresses to put on the metal cots,” Hilton said. “The pipes in the hallway were leaking.”

City claims House of Corrections ‘met safety standards’

It is unclear whether the city could be held liable for the impromptu use of the facility. Gamble said it was inspected prior to temporary use.

“In addition, the HOC was accredited by the Pa. Department of Corrections at the time of its closure, meaning it met applicable state health and safety standards,” she said.

Those reassurances stand in contrast to Kenney’s own admissions when he vowed to close the facility in 2018, following widely publicized tours of the building. “We are committed to changing the narrative about how people are viewed, and people are treated in this city,” Kenney said at the time.

Ultimately, Kenney said hard-fought reductions in the city’s jail population enabled them to safely close the facility for good.

Reuben Jones, a criminal justice organizer who lobbied for years to shut down the House of Corrections, said he was enraged to see the facility in use again — even for a temporary stay. He said, if anything, the conditions there are likely worse than ever since it hasn’t been operational in over two years.

“The very reason you cited for closing the jail — none of those things have changed,” Jones said. “But in the midst of what you consider a crisis, you open it up again.”

Those held at the facility on June 1 faced an array of charges, from curfew violation to theft to aggravated assault, according to people held there, but it remains unclear how ultimately faced criminal charges.

McDevitt and Hilton said they spent less than 12 hours in the facility. They were transferred to police headquarters at 8th and Race and charged with aggravated assault.

The District Attorney’s Office declined to press charges.

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...