Hard-Cell Tactics

Critics charge that overcrowding and understaffing in the city's prisons puts the lives of inmates and staff at risk.

By Steve Volk
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 3, 2005

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A few days later he arrived home and said that he and two co-workers had just been subjected to a shakedown in the kitchen.

"They scared me to death," he told Annamarie.

The following morning he died.

According to the death certificate, James Powell, 55, died from hypertension and asthma, which likely resulted in a heart attack.

"His blood pressure rose," says his wife. "I loved him so much. He was my whole life for 29 years. Now he's gone."

About an hour after Annamarie Powell left for work that day she received a call from her son. "I can't wake up dad," he said.

She rushed home but her husband was already dead. As she sat on the edge of the bed, holding him before the medical examiner's office could take his body away, the phone rang.

It was Aramark, wondering why James hadn't reported for work. "This isn't like him," the woman said.

Powell told her-he'd just died.

The Aramark representative, stunned by the news, told her that despite being on the job only a short time he'd been named employee of the month.

"I tried to calm him down," says William "Chip" Burrous, who had worked with Powell the night of the shakedown. "He was upset because they were throwing stuff around. We'd just cleaned up after our shift. He thought we were gonna get in trouble because our work stations weren't going to be clean."

Burrous himself has since been fired. "That was an awful job," he says. "I've got blood pressure problems myself. I was calling in sick."

Taking time off work is common in the Philadelphia prison system, particularly among corrections officers.

Annamarie Powell says she'll never work there again. She resigned about a week after her husband's funeral. "I don't know if there was any kind of connection between all these things that happened," she says. "But I know one thing: Stress kills, and the prison is a very stressful place."

How stressful, and just whose fault that is, remains a matter of some debate.

COs interviewed for this story perceive a link between prison conditions and their own safety. They claim the drive to save money from a cash-strapped city budget subjects them to increased danger: A prison system short of guards has resorted to locking inmates in their cells for unreasonably long periods of time. The inmates emerge frustrated and more dangerous than before.

Prison officials deny this, saying that when the prison is short-staffed, inmates go on "rolling restricted movement," limiting them to necessary trips out of their cells for activities like attorney visits, showers and phone calls.

"There's been an increase in assaults," says Donnie Moore, president of AFSCME Local 159, the union representing corrections officers. "Putting the inmates in lockdown increases their frustration and increases violence against other inmates and officers. It's only a matter of time till someone dies."

"We're seeing no rise in officer injuries," says prison commissioner Leon King. "There's no link between restricting movement and violence."

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