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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"Over the years the combination of arrest rates, bail decisions, mandatory sentencing all have had an adverse impact on the issue of overcrowding," says David Rudovsky, who's represented inmates in cases against the city for years. "At some point the current system is unable to provide a constitutional level of services. The prisons are reaching a point, given these numbers, where there could be lawsuits concerning conditions."

"I hope it doesn't take a riot for the city to see what's happening here," says Angus Love, executive director of the Pennsyl-vania Institutional Law Project, which provides free civil legal assistance to low-income people who are incarcerated or institutionalized. "I'm starting to see the signs. The COs are starting to see the signs. The inmates are starting to see the signs. This isn't imaginary. When you have triple celling, when you have lockdown conditions, these are serious issues. To what extent they'll manifest into bigger problems, I don't know. But clearly there are major signs that the prison situation is deteriorating."


Annamarie Powell has come to see her husband's death as reflective of life inside the Philadelphia prisons. And she references a plaque inside CFCF's lobby to make her point. The plaque bears the names of 33 corrections officers who have died since 1996-not in the line of duty, but while employed as COs.

"A lot of us saw that plaque as a symbol," says Powell, "of how stressful our job is. Those names are people who didn't live to retire. The job may not kill you directly. But it can get you indirectly."

The plight of corrections officers nationwide only figures to gain more prominence. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of corrections officers will increase somewhere between 21 and 35 percent through 2012, placing the total number of officers at more than 500,000.

Here in Philadelphia a group of retirees is trying to capture some of that momentum right now. "We've got a lot of knowledge," says Roberta Brame, president of the Retired Correctional Officers Organization of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. "And there should be some way to filter that knowledge back into the prisons."

Brame's group meets monthly at the Waters Memorial Church, just off South Street. This past week about 35 of their 102 members attended the meeting, at which they discussed pension benefits and an upcoming picnic, while a small group discussed Leon King.

Brame says the group intends to approach prison administrators, offering to serve as mentors and counselors to the system's current officers. "The communications line in the prison is better than Verizon," says Brame. "We know what's going on in there."

Brame perceives a system in crisis, with officers beset by low morale and jobs that seem to have gotten tougher in the last few years. "They can't always talk to their supervisors," says Brame. "So they bottle it up inside. And they take their problems home to someone who might not understand. But they could talk to us because we don't have any power over them."

Brame isn't expecting a warm reception from the current administration. "I think they're afraid of what we have up here," she says, pointing to her head. "They've got all the papers, but we've got the knowledge. This isn't a job you learn and receive a sheepskin. This is a job you learn by doing."

It's a charge King figures to hear as long as he remains prison commissioner. And those cries will only grow louder if morale stays as low as it is right now.

Powell too hears from people still working inside the prison. What she hears makes her glad she's gone. Last week, for instance, she was told an officer at CFCF had a shank driven all the way through his hand. And her son and daughter remind her just how far she's come.

"They bring up the things I'd say," she says. "I'd tell my kids, 'They're killing me. They're working us to death.' But now I feel totally relieved."

She doesn't know what to do from one moment to the next without her husband around, but she's started thinking that maybe he died so she wouldn't have to. "The stress was killing me," she says. "But since I resigned it's like I woke up. I woke up and there's this whole other world-a world outside the prisons."

 

Steve Volk (svolk@philadelphiaweekly.com) last wrote about a local man's animal-adorned car.


Body Count

Most prison experts agree that correlations between specific prison policies and violence can be hard to quantify.

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