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Controller: Philadelphia prisons at dangerous staffing level

June 29, 2021 GMT

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Philadelphia’s prisons are operating at below needed staffing levels, creating a dangerous situation for staff and prisoners, according to a report released by the city controller Tuesday.

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart called on the city “to hire over 300 correctional officers now” at a news conference releasing details of her findings. Rhynhart said the prisons department was already understaffed when nearly one in six officers left during the last fiscal year — putting the department about 382 officers short of the 1,884 needed to fully staff its facilities, according to the prison department’s official post plan.

“The Department of Prisons is at a tipping point. Inadequate staffing levels have led to unsafe conditions for workers and confinement of inmates, many of whom are pre-trial, to their cells – sometimes for 20 or more hours a day,” Rhynhart said.

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The findings are based on Rhynhart’s visits to several jails in the last week as well as an analysis of personnel data and operations, reports from corrections officers and prisoners and an analysis of incidents of violence at the jails. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported earlier this year that there had been five cases of inmate-on-inmate homicides since last August.

A spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney said Tuesday afternoon that the mayor’s office had not seen the controller’s full report, but had provided operational information to Rhynhart’s office last week.

We “explained that the City takes conditions at the Philadelphia Department of Prisons (PDP) for staff and inmates very seriously. The PDP has been addressing staffing challenges and there has been improvement,” spokesperson Deana Gamble said.

Gamble said a class of 23 cadets had graduated from the training academy in May and and were deployed to the prison facilities. She said another class of 20 cadets began training Monday and extensive recruitment efforts were underway.

The department has hired at a much slower rate than officers are leaving, however, Rhynhart said, adding that the situation has become critical and needs to be addressed with urgency. Over the last two fiscal years, the department has hired 119 new officers compared to more than 440 officers who left.

Staffing levels have caused operational issues at the facilities that are currently under a court order to provide at least three hours of daily out-of-cell time for most prisoners. Prison officials have blamed some of the issues on callouts or workers failing to show up for shifts, and they began offering increased shift differential pay to encourage officers to come to work.

Officials with the union that represents the corrections officers were at the news conference Tuesday. David Robinson, President of AFSCME District Council 33 Local 159, said the prison department has only been able to meet the court ordered out-of-cell time by having night-shift workers start early, but he said that leaves more short staffing and officers sometimes working alone during overnight shifts and creating different dangerous situations.