Tensions high in Philadelphia jails as court hearings face delays and case numbers mount

(Photo via The Philadelphia Tribune)

This story was updated shortly after publication on Friday to reflect Gov. Tom Wolf’s announcement that he would take executive action to reduce state prison populations.  

Henry Jackson was scheduled to appear in court in mid-April to see if a judge would lift the parole detainer that’s kept him in Philadelphia Detention Center since January.

But since courts across Pennsylvania are closed, with just a handful judges in each jurisdiction working to hear emergency cases, Jackson doesn’t know when he’ll get his hearing and potentially walk free.

In the meantime, he’s watching the number of COVID-19 cases climb in the Philadelphia city jails, where he’s being held in close quarters with more than 30 other men.

“You’ve got 32 people here two feet away from each other,” Jackson told the Capital-Star this week, describing his dormitory-style accommodation in the detention center. “You have people with high blood pressure, diabetes … they’re all in the same place, in the same area. There’s no distance.”

Prisoners and their advocates have warned for weeks that Pennsylvania’s jails and prisons will become petri dishes for COVID-19 unless officials take swift action to reduce their populations.

Gov. Tom Wolf flexed his executive powers on Friday to release up to 1,800 state prison inmates. But release efforts in county jails have been inconsistent, and could soon reach a tipping point, advocates say.

As Philadelphia emerges as a new hotspot for COVID-19, the disease is spreading faster in the jails than it is in any neighborhood in the city, according to the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

Philadelphia officials have so far confirmed 61 cases of COVID-19 in the city’s jails.

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If the 4,200 people incarcerated currently incarcerated in the city lived in their own zip code, it would have a higher rate of infection than any other one in Philadelphia, according to a Defender’s Association analysis of city health data.

None of the cases in Philadelphia jails have been fatal. But advocates warn that deaths are inevitable, and that infections in the jail could exacerbate transmission outside its walls.

“We know there will be deaths, whether it’s deaths of staff or prisoners,” said Nyssa Taylor, criminal justice policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “We’re not protecting anyone – not the people who are incarcerated, not the people who have to go to work there, or their families. The city is literally turning a blind eye to all of them.”

Constitutional crisis

City prison officials don’t provide detailed daily breakdowns of their inmate population.

But as of February, more than half the inmates in the prison system were being held on detainers or other holds, meaning they had to remain in custody pending the outcome of a parole hearing or trial, according to a population snapshot.

Most of those hearings were cancelled when Pennsylvania courts closed on March 16.

For Pennsylvania’s municipal and county courts, the pandemic has been a bureaucratic nightmare, forcing judges, attorneys and their staffers to find ways to conduct essential business while following federal social distancing guidelines.

But for inmates who feel powerless to protect themselves against the virus, it’s been an anguishing waiting game.

“It’s depressing,” Jackson said. “It’s high-tension, and there’s basically no end in sight right now, because people don’t know when they’re going to court. It’s real stressful.”

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Gabriel Roberts, a spokesman for the First Judicial Court of Philadelphia, said “things are going steadily” in city courts even as the pandemic has forced them to shutter dozens of courtrooms.

Four courtrooms in the city justice center are open three days a week so judges can hear cases over telephone, thanks to an agreement reached this week among District Attorney Larry Krasner, Chief Public Defender Keir Bradford-Grey, and the president judges of the municipal and common pleas courts.

Roberts confirmed that inmates like Jackson, who had their court dates cancelled, will have to file new motions to have their hearings get on the docket. He said the order in which judges hear cases depends on input from Krasner’s and Bradford-Grey’s offices.

A Krasner spokeswoman told the Capital-Star that the district attorney’s office is identifying good candidates for release based on age, health vulnerabilities, parole eligibility and other factors, and opposes release for violent offenders or inmates with firearms violations.

But Krasner and Bradford-grey said in a joint statement this week that the courts need to commit to a more aggressive timeline to reduce jail populations.

Attorneys and prison reform advocates agree that cases aren’t moving fast enough. That could raise constitutional issues, since all prisoners and people facing criminal charges are entitled to fair and speedy trials.

“Philly’s court system has been slow in responding to this crisis and ensuring everyone receives due process rights,” said Su Mingh Yeh, interim executive director of the Institutional Law Project, a statewide prisoner civil rights organization. “A number of individuals who would have been released are now stuck in jail.”

Some municipalities have tried to reduce that liability by orchestrating the mass release of prisoners. Allegheny County Jails have let more than 600 prisoners go, or roughly 20 percent of the local jail population, since Gov. Tom Wolf issued a statewide emergency declaration for the pandemic in March.

Populations in Philadelphia city jails have dropped by 11 percent since March 16, Roberts said.

Prison advocates could file a class-action lawsuit to protest conditions in the Philadelphia jails, which is what happened in Allegheny County this week, when prison reform groups sought better medical staffing and cleaning protocols.

But with the number of infections rising each day, Philadelphia prisoners and their loved ones say they don’t have time to lose.

“I don’t want a lawsuit, I want a son,” said Lisa Outterbridge, whose son has fallen ill while being detained in Philadelphia on a parole detainer. “My grandchildren need their father.”