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June 23, 2023

Philly's prison system needs new oversight board to fix staffing problems, overcrowding, councilmember says

Following the escape of two prisoners, Isaiah Thomas has introduced legislation that aims to create a panel with investigative powers and the ability to fix the issues it uncovers

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Prison Oversight Proposal Street View/Google Maps

Legislation introduced in City Council on Thursday aims to establish a new prison oversight board that would improve transparency and accountability in the Philadelphia prison system. Earlier this year, two prisoners escaped from jail above.

Philadelphia would establish a new prison oversight board under a new proposal that aims to improve transparency and accountability within the city's prison system.

The legislation, introduced Thursday by Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, comes after two prisoners escaped from the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center earlier this year. Though Nasir Grant, 24, and Ameen Hurst, 18, were both captured, their escape shed light on staffing concerns and other issues within the city's prison system.

The proposal is similar to legislation that Thomas and several other councilmembers supported last year. The proposed Philadelphia Prison Community Oversight Board would be made up of formerly incarcerated people, community members and stakeholder groups like the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, the Defenders Association of Philadelphia, labor unions representing prison staff, therapists and other mental health professionals. 

Like the Police Oversight Commission, the board would include nine members – four appointed by the mayor and five appointed by City Council. It would replace the current Prison Advisory Board.

The new board would hire investigators and have the power to fix the issues it uncovers, Thomas said. It's unclear whether it would have subpoena power – an aspect included in last year's proposal. Stakeholders have been meeting with Thomas over the last several weeks to help draft the legislation. 

Implementing the prison oversight board would require a change to the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter, the document that defines the power and structure of the city government. If the legislation is passed by City Council and signed by the mayor, it would be placed on the ballot as early as November's general election for voters to decide if a new prison oversight board should be created. 

The legislation will not be deliberated or voted on until City Council returns this fall. Thursday's session, which included the passage of the city budget, marked the final legislative session before the summer break.

"Philadelphia has seen issues within our prisons from escaped individuals, overcrowding, understaffed guards, and problems that have likely not yet seen the light of day," Thomas said in a press release. "With the partnership of stakeholders and valued input from formerly incarcerated Philadelphians, we are seeking to better understand these issues and fix them. Transparency and accountability must be present in all aspects of government, including the prison population."

The current Prison Advisory Board, created after a 2014 ballot measure established a prison department, which includes seven members. But the board drew harsh criticism last year from a former member who called it a "farce," saying it met infrequently with limited public access, lacked independence and had no real power to act on the issues within the prison system.

In May, AFSCME Local 159, the labor union representing Philly's correctional officers, unanimously voted "no confidence" in Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney. The union cited Carney's failure to address an ongoing staffing crisis and provide substantial support to improve the health and safety conditions of the four prisons under her jurisdiction, which union members described as "deplorable."

The vote was symbolic, but union President David Robinson has called on Mayor Jim Kenney to remove Carney from her position. The mayor's office has said city officials plan to continue working with Carney, who was appointed by Kenney in 2016, to address concerns.

Earlier this year, union officials said there were 805 staff vacancies at the Department of Prisons by the end of last year, representing 42% of all budgeted positions. They said ongoing staffing issues have led to the deterioration of health and safety conditions of the prisons.

Union officials have said the prisons are "historically unclean and unsanitary," with a lack of maintenance in place. Older facilities are not being cleaned frequently, and some prisons are not providing enough out-of-cell time for prisoners, which can have damaging impacts on physical health and contribute to recidivism.

After Grant and Hurst escaped from PICC with the alleged help of several other people, union officials claimed the escape was caused by the staffing shortage. Officials from the Department of Prisons denied their claims and launched an investigation into possible causes and procedural failures that may have led to the escape.

"The establishment of the Philadelphia Prison Community Oversight Board represents a significant milestone in the pursuit of a fair, equitable, and compassionate criminal legal system," John Thompson, organizer with Abolitionist Law Center, said in a press release. "By ensuring accountability, transparency, and rehabilitation, the Board aims to transform the lives of incarcerated individuals, support safer communities, and contribute to the overall well-being of Philadelphia."