Philadelphia's prison guard shortages lead to dangerous conditions for inmates, staff

"There aren't enough staff to accommodate their everyday needs," said a woman with relatives behind bars.
PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Those who are able to tour Philadelphia prison facilities describe a lack of adequate staff, broken and picked locks on cells and, at times, the air thick with the smoke of K-2 synthetic marijuana.

"Wherever they put their grievances at, there's so many they're flowing out the box. What is going on in there?" asked Quanda Guyton.

Two of Guyton's sons and her nephew are awaiting trial in the Philadelphia prison system. Arraigned in March, they aren't scheduled to see a judge again until June 2022.

"My son who is in PIC (Philadephia Industrial Correctional Center) says it's 97 inmates to one guard," said Guyton.

Guyton also describes assaults, lack of food, or adequate time outside of their cells.

"They haven't been on trial, they haven't been convicted yet, and I'm concerned about their mental. There aren't enough staff to accommodate their everyday needs," she said.

Former guards are also sounding the alarm about Philadelphia prison conditions.

"There's no sugar-coating it. I'm scared someone is going to be murdered in there," said Adela Holt, a former corrections captain who retired in Spring 2020 after 37 years on the job.

Holt is hearing from former coworkers about the dangers they face.

"Open up the line of communication with the inmates, open up the line of communication with the staff, and I'll guarantee you you'll see a great drop in assaults. The staff coming to work, they feel like they're not being appreciated," Holt added.

City Controller Rebecca Rynhart says staffing shortages that started before the pandemic have only grown.

This year there are 479 officer vacancies out of 1,884 positions outlined a plan for a safe operating procedure in Philadelphia prisons.

"When you have that type of staffing shortage, inmates are forced into lockdown for 22 to 23 hours a day," said Rynhart.

It can lead to aggressive behaviors amongst inmates, Rynhart says.

Rynhart adds there have been more inmate homicides (five) during the pandemic than in the last eight years combined.

"You're at greater risk of homicide than you are at risk of serious complication from COVID (in jail). Yet, we're not treating that as the crisis," said Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of prison reform group Pennsylvania Prison Society.

She says it's time a special commissioner oversees these issues.

"No one is taking responsibility for this crisis. Everyone is pointing their finger at another stakeholder and telling them to do their job," said Shubik-Richards.

A city spokesperson says Philadelphia is not alone in experiencing staffing shortages and is conducting interviews for corrections officer positions.

They say prisons are striving to allow for three hours outside a cell per day, based on the inmate-to-staff ratio.

In terms of capacity to conduct drug sweeps, a city spokesperson said, "Regarding searches, the Prisons have continued searches throughout the pandemic for contraband, and we commend the dedicated correctional staff who perform their duties and intercept such contraband. We remain diligent in our searches to combat contraband introduction into our facilities."

Other states have reached out to their local National Guard to fill vacancies in prison security. Philadelphia has not considered this option.

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