Lawyers sue over prison overcrowding

April 28, 2008 9:16:40 PM PDT
A year after a federal judge issued a scathing order over conditions at Philadelphia's crowded jails, the problem has only worsened, civil rights lawyers charge in a new suit filed Monday. Three people are routinely held in two-bunk cells, leaving the third to sleep in a blue, plastic shell on the floor, inches from the toilet, they said. The overcrowding jeopardizes medical care and other basic needs of the record 9,300 people now in city custody, the suit alleges.

"Our clients are being detained in unconstitutional conditions, and we think the court's intervention is necessary to get the problems resolved," lawyer Jonathan Feinberg said Monday.

The prison census has grown from about 8,800 when U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick issued his order in January 2007.

New Mayor Michael Nutter wants to explore alternatives to prison for some nonviolent offenders and hopes to reduce recidivism through a program that offers tax breaks to firms that hire ex-offenders.

Nutter, who took office in January, has also asked his prison commissioner to outline other ways to reduce the prison population, a spokesman said.

"The prison overcrowding remains squarely on this administration's radar, and we're actively working to address the challenge before us," spokesman Doug Oliver said. Feinberg acknowledged Nutter's interest in the problem and said he hopes the two sides can work together.

In a 76-page opinion last year, Surrick ordered the city to immediately provide prisoners with clean cells, toilets, showers, beds and medical attention. He allowed the use of three-person cells only as a temporary solution.

But the judge's temporary injunction expired in the middle of last year. Today, about 2,000 to 3,000 inmates are housed three-to-a-cell, Feinberg said.

"Here we are, more than a year from Judge Surrick's ruling, and triple-celling has not only been maintained, it's increased," Feinberg said.

Monday's suit was filed on behalf of 11 inmates housed at four city jails, but seeks class certification on behalf of all city inmates. The plaintiffs include both men and women.

The suit seeks, as one remedy, a three-judge panel to review the potential release of some nonviolent offenders.

Feinberg works with University of Pennsylvania law professor David Rudovsky, who filed last year's suit as well as a similar 1971 complaint that led to court oversight of Philadelphia jails through 2001.

The city has 60 days to formally respond to the lawsuit.


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