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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"I don't think there's been a comparative study that would categorize the circumstances under which violence occurs," says Alan Elsner, author of Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America's Prisons. "Certainly, prisons keep statistics on assaults, but they're not collected, they're not tabulated, they're certainly not published, and often the write-ups are slanted in some way or another, so you can't always trust those."

Elsner says good old-fashioned litigation is the most successful avenue for uncovering prison violence. The discovery process, in which attorneys can request internal documentation from the prison system, forces administrators' hands. But even in the event of a lawsuit, violence occurs for such complicated reasons that conclusions can be hard to draw.

"It's probably a bit naive to expect any one-to-one relationships," says Elsner. "But continuous lockdown is a good way of storing up all kinds of anger and rage. Inadequate staffing and overcrowding are contributing factors as well."

Here in Philadelphia, city police and prison statistics can disagree for several reasons (see the table below). Most obviously, police statistics reflect incidents in which arrests were actually made, and arrests rarely happen in prison.

"Lots of incidents never get reported," says Angus Love, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. "Prisoners will often keep their mouths shut rather than speaking up and facing another attack for talking."

Further, Philadelphia prison officials didn't supply statistics for inmate-on-inmate violence, making the numbers below that much harder to interpret. In any event, the dramatic increase in aggravated assaults reported to the police could reflect a corresponding increase in serious cases of assault. It could also mean prison officials are pressing charges more often.

King declined comment. "I haven't seen those figures," he said. "I'd have to see the data to respond." (S.V.)

Philadelphia Police Statistics

Simple Assaults
2000: 92
2001: 221
2002: 219
2003: 188
2004: 218
2005 (as of July 13): 78

Aggravated Assaults
2000: 23
2001: 29
2002: 53
2003: 66
2004: 97
2005 (as of July 13): 56

Philadelphia Prison Statistics

Staff Suffering "Inmate Contact" Injuries
Fiscal year 2002: 179
Fiscal year 2003: 167
Fiscal year 2004: 152
Fiscal year 2005: 145

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