A plea from U.S. jails: Stop killing us

Robert Divine, 52, died 2/14/23; Steven Smith, 38, died 4/15/21; Courtney Salmon, 31, died 5/25/21; Quincy Di-Harris, 25, died 8/27/21; Kenneth Harris, 69, died 6/7/23; Bass Wykeem, 33, died 8/26/22 — these are just six out of at least 46 people who died in Philadelphia County jails since 2020.

Philadelphia rally, Sept. 28, 2023. (WW Photo: Joe Piette)

Many community meetings and protests over the last three years outside City Hall and at the City’s four prisons criticized rodent infestations, small food portions, the use of solitary confinement, severe staffing shortages and other inhumane policies in Philadelphia jails. A Sept. 28 rally outside City Hall raised the demand that a new community oversight board be appointed.

Organized by the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) and other groups, participants carried placards with the name, age and date of death of each person who died inside the City’s jails since 2020.

After the rally, participants went inside to visit each City Council member to urge passage of legislation aimed at enhancing oversight of Philadelphia’s jails. The City Charter change would create a nine-person board, with the council president appointing five members and the mayor selecting four. The board’s exact powers and duties would be detailed in a future ordinance.

Funding to staff an Office of Prison Oversight would be tied to the jail system’s budget. John Thompson, a formerly incarcerated man who now works for the ALC, said the board should include mental health experts, members of the community and at least two formerly incarcerated people. No former correctional officers should be appointed, he told the rally.

Activists want City Council to hold a hearing in November, after which a two-thirds majority vote by the Council would place the board’s creation on the ballot as a question in the spring 2024 primary election. 

Concentration camps for the poor

Jails are where people are kept after being arrested, if they cannot afford bail, until their trial. Jail is populated by poor people without the funds to post bail and those denied bail by a judge. Those who are found guilty and sentenced to two years or more are sent to a state prison. In Philadelphia’s jails, 90% of detainees are people of color, 90% have not been convicted of a crime but are awaiting trial, and 40% have a mental illness.

A PrisonLegalNews.org article in August 2022 reported that, “Philadelphia’s jails appear to be failing on nearly every level, from staffing and security to medical and mental health care, occupational opportunities, library and recreation time, and even the provision of the most basic human needs such as food and sanitation. 

“The crisis that unfolded with the onset of the pandemic in the spring of 2020 has sparked ongoing protests by the families of those incarcerated, as well as public defenders, community members, and prisoners’ rights advocates. It has also caused a series of uprisings by prisoners themselves. Civil rights litigation over dangerous and unhygienic conditions has resulted in the city paying out over $250,000 in partial settlements, with the money going to bail funds working to free as many people as possible from confinement in Philly jails. Litigation and criminal investigations are ongoing in the cases of prisoners murdered in a spike of deadly violence, and a federal court has appointed a special officer to oversee the city’s heel-dragging efforts at reforms meant to address the issues.” 

Thousands of Philadelphia residents in jail are suffering and pleading for basic human rights: showers, toilet paper, phone calls, meals and visits from their families. The inhumane conditions have continued for years despite the protests.

Protests in dozens of cities targeting jail deaths

Similar protests against the deaths of loved ones inside jails have taken place in the last year outside local jails Milwaukee County Jail, Wisconsin; San Diego Central Jail, and Santa Rita Jail in California; Fulton County Jail, Atlanta; Pima County Jail, Tucson, Arizona; El Paso County Jail, Texas; Walker County Jail, Jasper, Alabama; Louisville Metro Department of Corrections, Kentucky; Tangipahoa Parish, Hammond, Louisiana; Cumberland County Jail, Augusta, Maine; Allegheny County Jail, Pittsburgh; Erie County Holding Center, Buffalo, New York; Cuyahoga County Jail, Cleveland; in over a dozen cities and towns across the U.S.

Like in Philadelphia and other cities, “Most people have lost their life pretrial in these jails. They haven’t had their first day in court, which means in our system they died innocent,” Yusef Miller of the North County Equity and Justice Coalition said outside San Diego Central Jail. (nbcsandiego.com, July 26) 

“Because a person is sick … that doesn’t mean that they should receive a death sentence and that’s what’s happening here,” said Norma Nelson, whose brother Donald suffered a diabetic seizure, got into a fight and was killed in a cell just two hours after arriving at Santa Rita Jail. “People who are in need of medical, mental health care, behavioral health care — they’re just not getting it here.” (cbsnews.com/sanfrancisco, Apr. 1) 

Responding to a report from the Milwaukee County sheriff’s office highlighting jail overpopulation and staffing issues, the Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression said staffing isn’t the problem. The jail itself is: “There should be alternatives that are publicly funded that could provide a lot of people with mental health issues the services they require and deserve.” (fox6now.com, Aug. 25)

“There is an astronomical death rate inside the current facility mostly due to the mismanagement of the space and programs,” said Mia Burcham, who organized a protest in Tucson, Arizona. “And we know the answer is not to build out more incarceration space.” (kold.com, Aug. 11)

At a “Stop Killing Us” rally in Augusta, Maine, Brandon Brown, formerly incarcerated at Maine State Prison, said “There are some people that need to be away from society to get better. But I think the vast majority of people that are in prison would be better served by community alternatives.” (mwtw.com, Sep 10, 2022)

Community activists across the U.S. have proposed various solutions to the epidemic of deaths while in county jails. Many protest participants believe mass incarceration should be abolished. But what do we who have loved ones behind bars do until then?

Philadelphia activists, many of whom are formerly incarcerated or relatives of those who died in jail, are hoping more community oversight of the City’s jails will improve the chances that anyone placed in jail will come out alive.

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