Critics charge that overcrowding and understaffing in the city's prisons puts the lives of inmates and staff at risk.
Many of the COs PW interviewed allege he's simply "playing dress-up," donning symbols of authority he never earned. They say some of his other ideas, like outlawing profanity inside the prison, indicate just how little he understands the world in which he's landed.
Every day COs patrol areas where criminals outnumber them by 40 to one and more.
"For real, for real," says one current CO, "the inmates can decide at any time to just stop following orders-and there isn't a whole lot we can do about it."
One night in June the inmates on C-1 Pod 1 at CFCF refused to go into their cells until officer reinforcements arrived. Last summer 500 inmates went on a hunger strike. These are typical ways inmates send the message that a crisis could be coming.
In this environment COs act as oppressors and parental figures to the prisoners they oversee. They feed the inmates, bring them their medication and get them to doctor, dentist and barber visits. In the midst of this caretaking they try to project enough authority to discourage lawbreaking.
"An inmate has 24 hours day to sit and think about how to get over," says another CO. "They can be very creative."
During a recent tour of CFCF, warden Louis Giorla pointed out the door latches on showers inside one of the housing areas. "We're replacing those," he said, "because they've been turning up as weapons."
Because the food quality is so poor, and portions can appear small in our biggie-sized world, inmates supplement their diets with food purchased from the commissary. Or they just go hungry. Inmates who lack financial resources find other ways to obtain food-trading contraband or their bodies.
How bad can it get?
Some inmates exchange sexual favors for "chi-chi," jailhouse slang for any foods from hot soup to cheese puffs. It's in this environment that COs try to maintain order, a job that's gotten harder through the years.
Many officers watched as the crisis in America's prisons carried Philadelphia's system right along in its wake.
The U.S. prison population rose more than 27 percent between 1995 and 2002. Overcrowding and understaffing are the new norm. Philadelphia's prison population has risen sharply over the last seven years-from 5,600 to 8,340 inmates-resulting in the creation of new facilities and the restructuring of old ones along State Road in Northeast Philadelphia.
In reality, Philadelphia's prisons define overcrowding. Spaces at the Detention Center that were designed to hold 10 inmates now hold 25. Many cells at PICC and the House of Correction originally designed to hold one inmate now hold two. (How'd they do it? By welding another bed to the wall.) But the system still can't keep up with demand.
King himself admits that when the prison population hovers around 8,300 inmates, as it did throughout July, he's forced to resort to "triple celling" at the House of Correction-jamming three people into cells built for two. "No one likes it," says King. "But we're responsible for taking on all the inmates that the police and the courts send us."
The dilemma forces the normally straightforward commissioner to parse his language. "I don't like the word 'overcrowded,'" he says at one point. "I'd just say we'd like to see less people."
Right now he's got more people than he can handle. King works with prisons in Delaware County, which take in about 350 of Philadelphia's inmates. He's won some respect for making do with what he's got.
"I'm gonna tell it like it is," says Malik Aziz, head of the Ex-Offender's Association of Pennsylvania, a city-sponsored group designed to help convicts re-acclimate to society. "When I come to Leon King with a problem, he listens and tries to solve it."
The public defender's office agrees. "He's doing a good job given what he's facing," says Tom Innes, director of prison services. "If you're saying the prison is some kind of boiling cauldron and it's going to overflow, I have to tell you: I'm there every day, and I'm not seeing it."
Others see major trouble brewing.