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September 1, 2014, 12:37 pm

Attorney renews overcrowding lawsuit

More than 9,000 inmates in city jails


Civil rights attorney David Rudovsky was given permission by a federal judge this week to reopen a lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia for its overcrowded prisons, a problem with no easy solution.

Rudovsky took on the issue of prison overcrowding during Mayor Michael Nutter’s first term in 2008, and also during the John Street administration in 2006, when the city’s prison population exceeded 9,000 inmates. According to Philadelphia Prison System spokesperson Shawn Hawes, the current inmate population — in the six facilities on State Road and smaller jails throughout the city — is 9,339. She was unable to comment regarding the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that more than 1,000 inmates are housed three to a cell in cells meant for two people, air conditioning is a problem at the Detention Center, and these conditions exacerbate volatile issues inmates already have. But Philadelphia or Pennsylvania isn’t the only city or state with overcrowded prisons. Experts say this is a nationwide problem and that, although there have been some reductions, inmate overcrowding continues to be a problem. In fact, according to statistics provided by the Sentencing Project, there are 2.2 million people in the nation's prisons or jails — a 500 percent increase over the past thirty years.

Rudovsky, who was unable to respond by Tribune press time, said in a previous interview that although there had been some alleviation of the crowded conditions, the facilities are still over capacity.

“This was not a new lawsuit,” Rudovsky said. “The judge just agreed to allow us to reopen the previous complaint. Essentially, the city managed to reduce the inmate population to 7,500 several months ago, and it appeared as though we were making progress. But now it’s turned around the other way. We’re back to triple-celling — which we think is unconstitutional. We’ve had some reductions over the last few years. At one point, the city prison population was at 10,000 inmates. On the state level, we’ve had some diversion of the inmate population, and for nonviolent offenders we’re seeing more sentencing to alternative facilities and in-house arrests — and these offenders’ cases are being heard quicker but now the prisons are overcrowded.”

Prison reform has taken on an increasing national stature, particularly in an era of shrinking state and local budgets. Governments are looking for alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders. In 2010, Republican state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf was among those lawmakers who said that Pennsylvania could save millions on prison costs if the state made better use of alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders.

“With an aggressive alternative sentencing program and better treatment programs in general, we can actually reverse the increases,” Greenleaf said. Greenleaf sponsored legislation to use more specialized courts like drug courts, and to move nonviolent criminals to halfway houses.

The state legislature passed three of Greenleaf’s prison reform bills during the 2009-2010 session. The measures were combined into Act 95 of 2010, which contained several provisions to save costs.

“Pennsylvania has more than 51,000 prison inmates,” Greenleaf said. “This number is 8,000 more than the rated capacity for the state prison system. Pennsylvania is building three new prisons and, while they are being built, transferring inmates to counties and other states, like Virginia and Michigan, with excess capacity. We must bring this crisis under control. We must fund programs that will help divert low-level offenders from state prison and support re-entry services that lessen the chance for offenders to commit new crimes.”

Although a recently released government report showed a decline in the national prison population in most states, Pennsylvania is among those still showing an increase. But part of the reason for the increase, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trust, is that Philadelphia’s prisons are transferring a portion of the county population to state facilities.

“From 2008 to 2009, even as Philadelphia’s inmate population peaked and then fell, Pennsylvania’s Prison System was recording the largest increase in prisoners of any state in the nation in absolute numbers,” according to the report. “Only two states, Indiana and West Virginia, had bigger percentage increases than Pennsylvania’s 4 percent. Over the same period, 26 states had population declines.

Philadelphia is responsible for a significant share of the increase being experienced by the state. Last year, the number of new inmates going to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections from the Philadelphia courts rose by 6 percent. Without enough capacity to handle the growing population, Pennsylvania is sending prisoners to Michigan and Virginia. Plans are in place to build four new state prisons.”

According to the report, in Philadelphia the decline in the inmate population started early in 2009 and accelerated as the year went on. A number of factors contributed to the drop, including a marked decrease in the percentage of sentenced inmates because of changes in the law. Rudovsky said that a number of factors contributed to the overall decline in the Philadelphia Prison System but there are still issues.

“I think they started implementing some of the things we recommended in our lawsuit and there have been some changes in the laws. Seth Williams did some things in the charging unit. But Philadelphia still has one of the highest prison populations in the country. I think they’ve done the easy things, now it’s time to take on some of the more difficult issues,” Rudovsky said.