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Credit: Mia Kim

After hundreds in Philadelphia's incarcerated population tested positive for COVID-19, since the pandemic took hold in the city nearly three months ago, some members of the Penn community are advocating for the University to alleviate difficulties that the spread of the virus in city jails has created for inmates. 

Nearly one month ago, city officials announced it would begin universal COVID-19 testing for the 3,800 people incarcerated in Philadelphia's four jails. The testing came approximately two weeks after the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal civil rights class-action lawsuit on behalf of ten inmates in Philadelphia jails, against the Philadelphia Department of Prisons. 

The inmates sought improvements in jail conditions to protect prisoners from the spread of COVID-19 and those exhibiting its symptoms in the shared facilities. 

In early May, 75% of all city inmates who were exhibiting symptoms had tested positive for the virus, which was triple the rate of infection than the city's entire population. Although two hundred Philadelphia inmates have been infected to date, only three people at correctional facilities are currently grappling with the virus. 

“The situation is pretty dire,” School of Social Policy & Practice professor Toorjo Ghose said. 

Ghose is a founding member and CEO of The Center for Carceral Communities, a Penn-affiliated non-profit that collaborates with neighborhoods in West Philadelphia to encourage those with a history of incarceration to re-engage with their communities. 

He said the poor conditions in jails during the pandemic have created a major public health crisis.

The suit, filed on April 20, argued that the city's current jail conditions increase the likelihood of incarcerated people contracting the virus and becoming seriously ill, violating prisoners' Eighth Amendment right to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the ACLU press release.

Plaintiffs cited the lack of access to hand sanitizer, soap, and cleaning supplies, as well as housing arrangements that kept inmates in close contact with each other, making social distancing nearly impossible. Inmates and guards in Philadelphia's jails have also stated they repeatedly use the same cloth facial masks among lacking a myriad of other resources, which does not align with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Two weeks after the suit was filed, the parties reached a partial settlement agreement on June 5. The agreement will require the city to increase access to hygiene products and implement procedures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the correctional facilities.

The ten incarcerated people who sued, however, argue that issues still remain to be settled in practice, including social distancing protections, time allotted out of their cell, and access to attorneys, according to a press release from the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, ACLU, and other civil rights and criminal defense attorneys.

Rising College senior and President of Beyond Arrests: Re-Thinking Systematic Oppression Michael Williams said that the organization is in full support of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. BARS is a campus organization at Penn that advocates for local criminal justice reform.

Williams said the conditions inmates were forced to live in were unsafe and unjust. Before the settlement, inmates had to use their commissary accounts to pay for personal-use soap and were forced to allot their free time towards a shower or a phone call, according to the Inquirer.

“They’ve literally been left to die,” Williams said. 

As a result of the June settlement, jails must now provide free soap, clean towels, and the opportunity to shower daily. The city also committed to providing four face masks to every incarcerated person and will require all prison staff to wear masks as well.

To continue reducing the impacts of COVID-19 on incarcerated individuals, Ghose is advocating for the release of older and immunocompromised prisoners from city jails. He recognizes, however, that the release of many inmates could lead to a local housing crisis. 

Ghose said the University can help with providing housing for potentially released inmates, as he said many of those who will be released will be homeless and at increased risk of infection living on the street. As Penn's dorms remain empty for the summer, Ghose said the University could temporarily house formerly incarcerated people to reduce their risk of infection from the virus.

“Penn has such a huge geographical footprint in the city that I think that could be something they could easily do,” Ghose said. 

Williams said he feels that Penn students can best get involved by by sharing and donating to causes that help those who have been incarcerated. He said BARS has been encouraging the Penn community to donate to the Philadelphia Bail Fund, which has created a COVID-19 rapid response fund to pay bail funds and release people from jails as quickly as possible. 

Since courts closed in response to COVID-19, however, the process of hearings has slowed down ⁠— resulting in prolonged stays in city jails. Because jail conditions can lead to an increased risk of contracting the coronavirus, Williams said the fund is important to free up those who have been awaiting trial for a lengthy amount of time. 

Williams said he encourages Penn students to engage in conversations about the public health crisis in jails, share information of fundraisers like the Philadelphia Bail Fund, and stay engaged and informed. He added that BARS plans to put together a list of demands to local legislatures about jail conditions. 

"I think [the crisis in jails] is really reflective of the ways that jails and prisons and the whole prison industrial complex is an illegitimate and destructive model that should not exist anymore," he said.

While the recent settlement is a major initial step in providing basic protections from COVID-19, long-term lockdown enforcements remain to be a concerning health issue for the inmates, wrote Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project Su Ming Yeh in the June 5 press release, 

The order from a federal judge has set the stage for the next phase of the litigation process, as Yeh and the other attorneys in the class-action case will continue to monitor the city's jail facility conditions in the coming weeks.