A coronavirus outbreak at Philadelphia’s federal prison has infected at least 171 incarcerated people in less than four weeks, as well as 28 staff members, court records show. Attorneys suing the prison claim the federal government knew about this outbreak early on, and did not act properly to mitigate the spread.

It’s the second outbreak in the downtown correctional facility at 7th and Arch Streets and already the most severe, after a string of cases were reported during the city’s spring wave.

After months of relative quiet, U.S. Attorney William McSwain acknowledged the first new case on Oct. 30 in a letter to U.S. Eastern District Judge Anita B. Brody.

The Trump-appointed federal prosecutor vowed a clampdown.

The Federal Detention Center was “aggressively investigating and taking steps to mitigate this matter, including by conducting a contact investigation to identify and quarantine, as appropriate, individuals who may have come in direct contact with the inmate,” McSwain wrote.

But cases kept growing despite those proposed efforts, according to daily case counts submitted in court by the prosecutor’s own office.

This week, the detention center has reported between 17 and 28 additional positive cases each day. The majority are asymptomatic, and while some people are experiencing mild symptoms, “no inmate has required medical care outside the institution,” McSwain wrote on Wednesday.

Attorneys who are suing the prison over its allegedly laggard COVID-19 response claim this outbreak could have been prevented.

Criminal defense attorney Linda Dale Hoffa said the federal government is now scrambling to rectify the situation — at the expense of the civil rights of the roughly 1,000 men and women incarcerated in the facility, the vast majority of whom have not been convicted and are still pending trial.

Hoffa said the latest lockdown amounts to a blackout.

No attorney visits. No social visits from friends or family. Limited communications, limited email, limited access to legal research. Incarcerated people are only permitted out of their cells three times a week, for 30 minutes, to shower and make monitored phone calls.

“I hear from the inmates and families that they have not been able to communicate,” Hoffa said. “Families don’t know what’s going on. They don’t know whether their loved ones or family members are OK because of the lack of communications.”

No video calls allowed, despite lawyers’ requests

Hoffa is a partner at Philly firm Dilworth Paxson, which is working with the Public Interest Law Center in a lawsuit filed in April against Federal Detention Center warden Sean Marler.

For months, the group of lawyers on the case have been pushing the government to implement video conferencing for all residents at the prison to see their families and lawyers. So far, the courts have rejected those offers.

“The answer is no, they won’t do it,” Hoffa said. “They just reject our requests to do that.”

McSwain’s office declined to comment. Billy Penn has reached out to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. The detention center’s website has little advisory on the current lockdown beyond “all visiting at this facility has been suspended until further notice.”

Hoffa said it’s a serious issue when attorneys can’t have confidential conversations with their clients.

“The vast majority are pre-trial detainees,” she said. “These are not convicted persons at this facility. We have been seeking this from the beginning of this litigation, for the facility to establish confidential video conferencing.”

Leigh Skipper, the chief federal defender based in Philadelphia, said communications began to improve this week. “There were difficulties in interacting with our clients, but we have since gained considerable access for limited time for telephone calls this week,” Skipper said, though privacy issues depend on the phone line being used.

Yale epidemiologist told prison to cut population before second wave

Attorneys claim testing inside the facility was scarce last spring. Now, the surge of cases has led to more testing. But the prison has not committed to universally testing every incarcerated person. Philadelphia made that effort in city jails back in May, and found 6% of people behind bars were COVID-positive.

With a population around 1,000, the limited testing conducted since late October has revealed roughly 17% of prison residents are positive for the virus.

Central to the suit filed against the FDC in April was a request to slim down the jail population and allow some incarcerated people to remain on remote monitoring — especially those most at risk of serious complications from COVID-19.

Gregg Gonsalves, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale School of

Medicine, described prisons as reservoirs for the coronavirus, predicting larger outbreaks would prove hard to quell. “Jails and prisons are tinderboxes for infectious disease,” Gomsalves wrote.

In an August briefing to the U.S. Attorney’s Office on behalf of the plaintiffs, he advised the government to thin down the population as much as possible.

“The risk of SARS-CoV-2 persisting in these facilities will only decrease to the extent the population in these facilities is reduced and remains reduced, something that is particularly true when it comes to individuals at high risk from COVID-19,” the epidemiologist wrote.

Hoffa, the attorney, said the courts did not heed the request.

“There was never any doubt that this was going to happen,” Hoffa said. “Measures had to be taken, the measures we asked to be taken weren’t done. They just waited.”

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...