A prisoner in a Philadelphia jail was stabbed multiple times in a three-man attack on an unguarded cell block nearby, leaving him stumbling in his cell because no one was helping him. The September 30 incident, captured on surveillance video obtained by The Inquirer, went undetected after other prisoners rushed to mop up the blood.
Prison officers and prisoners said the situation was a consequence of intensifying staff shortages at the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, where violence was simmering among the men who spend 21 hours a day locked in their cells.
An Inquirer’s analysis of a week’s recent staff lists found that 20-30% of a given day’s shifts were occupied by agents and supervisors working overtime. Many agents work 16 hour or even 22 hour workdays.
âOften the officers are just forced to stay there because there is no relief,â said a worker who requested anonymity because the staff are not authorized to speak with the media. âThat’s why a lot of people are quitting. They are fed up with.
At the same time, over 40% of the shifts on the lists were not filled at all.
Often vacant shifts included law library, recreation and education positions. Many cell blocks were listed as having a correctional officer to staff the unit – but no rover for support or escort to move inmates. For many days there was no one to administer disciplinary hearings or deal with grievances.
READ MORE: Video shows staff assaulting two men in Philly jails, where 14 have died this year
The department, according to the city comptroller’s office, has around 530 officers below its required staff level, reflecting a 28 percent vacancy rate. Another 60 to 75 officers each day were listed as âinjured on duty,â further limiting the pool of available workers. About 20 to 30 were listed as âabsent without permissionâ.
Philadelphia Prison Commissioner Blanche Carney declined a request for an interview and a spokesperson said for security reasons the city would not validate any internal staff information.
However, Carney said, any coverage from the department should take into account that American workers are quitting their jobs in record numbers – and prisons across the country are particularly hard hit. âNationally, other jurisdictions face some of the same challenges. We are doing much better than other jurisdictions, âshe said. This has led to an increase in violence at facilities like Riker’s Island in New York City, where staff have reportedly ceded cell blocks to gang control.
In the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, by contrast, the vacancy rate for correctional officers and interns is only 5.6%, spokeswoman Maria Bivens said. She described this as sufficient to maintain security, but said recruiting was underway.
In Philadelphia, the consequences of the shortage have been particularly severe: at least 21 people have died in prison during the pandemic, including five by homicide and four by suicide. Staff say riots and unrest have become more frequent.
The man injured in the September 30 assault at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility was subsequently treated for his injuries, according to a person familiar with the situation. A city spokesperson said the prison could not confirm the incident, but added that all reported incidents of violence are under investigation.
In another recent incident, men from two cell blocks at Riverside Correctional Facility refused to return to their cells, complaining of lack of access to phones and excessive time in confinement, according to one. October 25 report obtained by The Inquirer. A city spokesperson said the incident was resolved peacefully within 20 minutes and detainees were given at least three hours a day out of their cells, according to a federal court order.
READ MORE: ‘Unit unsecured’: during a week of riots, fires and destruction in Philadelphia prisons
Still, a prison worker said the conditions in the cell blocks where the riots have occurred are alarming: âThe guys don’t have access to anything that they should have access to. They haven’t showered for weeks. They haven’t received any phone calls for weeks. They could not get out of the cells due to the lack of correctional officers. They don’t get a commissary, so they can’t even buy envelopes to send mail. They have virtually no contact with the outside world.
Susan Elliott, whose son Joshua is in one of those cell blocks, said when he was finally allowed to call home he described going three weeks without a shower and three days without food. He told her that after the riot he was “punched in the genitals” and sprayed with pepper spray five times. Not having access to a shower, he had to put his face in the toilet to rinse off the chemicals, she said.
Two prison staff said staff struggled to maintain operations such as meal service, sometimes delivering breakfast and lunch trays together. They also said the sliding doors along the hallways were sometimes left open because there was no one to watch them. Prison and union representatives denied this.
A second video obtained by The Inquirer from August, however, appears to show such a scene: An inmate wanders through an area where other incarcerated men are working unsupervised, loading food onto carts. He tries to steal food, argues and is stabbed, before others interrupt the fight and chase him away. No agent shows up to intervene.
A class action lawsuit against the prison pandemic response was amended in October to allege the department is failing to meet its basic obligations, such as responding to medical emergencies.
“We are now receiving very serious information about the delays in medical care, the increase in violence and the inability to go to court,” said Su Ming Yeh, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.
A federal judge overseeing this trial had previously ordered prisons to restore programming, family visits and full access to the law library by October 25. According to the amended lawsuit, none of these services are available yet.
The ministry recently hired 30 new officers and offered staff a new course of action: a 12-hour working day. The city says the plan “will increase coverage on all shifts, while increasing days off for staff members.”
David Robinson, president of the correctional officers union, local 159 of the AFSCME 33 district council, was skeptical. He said some officers had warned they would resign if that schedule goes into effect.
âNow we are in a situation where we have no staff. It makes prisons dangerous, âhe said. âThey had an obligation to keep these prisons safe. And I’ll be honest: I believe they failed.