“Don’t Forget We’re People”

Grassroots Coalition Calls on City to Release Loved Ones from Philadelphia Jails Immediately

This year, the Christmas season was tainted with blood on the hands of the Philadelphia Department of Prisons (PDP). By the time of this article, 18 people had died in Philadelphia jails since the beginning of the year. Four of them died in the prior two weeks. 

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, of the four men, 62-year-old Jerome Lyles, 52-year-old Bartholomew Gottshalk, and 42-year-old Angel Torres-Rosado were all facing nonviolent charges when they died at the jail. Another incarcerated man died at the hospital on Christmas Eve. The causes of death have not yet been released. 

Before word of the deaths had reached the community, the #No215Jails Coalition organized a Dignity Through Decarceration rally and press conference at the Octavius Catto statue outside of City Hall in downtown Philadelphia. Despite the biting cold and blistering wind, nearly 40 people gathered in front of a mock solitary confinement cell to call on city leaders—specifically Mayor Jim Kenney, District Attorney Larry Krasner, and the First Judicial District leadership—to bring people home to their families. 

ALC organizer JT rallies the community outside of City Hall

JT, an organizer with the Abolitionist Law Center who spent 13 years in solitary confinement out of his 37 years in prison, emceed the event alongside Reuben Jones, the executive director of Frontline Dads who also spent 15 years in prison. “This is unacceptable in the City of Philadelphia,” JT proclaimed. “It’s getting ready to be Christmas time. But you have those brothers and sisters in [the jail] suffering. Can’t even make a phone call home to say Merry Christmas to their children.”

The #No215Jails Coalition, which includes the ACLU PA, Frontline Dads, Human Rights Coalition, Philadelphia Bail Fund, Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, and the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project, released their list of demands for the city:

  1. End the use of cash bail
  2. Immediate review hearings for every person in detention
  3. Immediate release of every person serving a county sentence
  4. Lift all detainers for people held on violations of probation and electronic monitoring
  5. Remove all youth from the Philadelphia jails, bringing the city in compliance with federal Juvenile Justice Delinquency & Prevention Act (JJDPA)
  6. Priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine for all those incarcerated
  7. For people currently incarcerated:
    • Opportunity to participate in beneficial programming 
    • End solitary confinement
    • Unlimited free phone calls, video visits, regular visits, and mail supplies
    • Unlimited access to cleaning supplies and PPE
    • Timely access to necessary healthcare
    • Eliminate mold, mildew, pests, and all hazardous conditions in the jails
    • Unlimited access to counsel
    • Unlimited out-of-cell time each day

In April 2020, a group of legal centers filed a federal civil rights class action lawsuit Remick v. City of Philadelphia on behalf of all incarcerated people in Philadelphia county jails. The lawsuit claims that the remarkably dire conditions in the jails violate the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the right to due process under the 14th Amendment, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. After the city failed to comply with the judge’s consent order mandating that the PDP provide adequate hygienic and sanitary measures as well as at least three hours of out-of-cell time per day, an unprecedented settlement in June 2021 resulted in the city making a one-time payment of $125,000 to the Philadelphia Bail Fund and the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund. 

U.S. District Court Senior Judge Berle M. Schiller, who issued the consent orders, set a deadline of January 22, 2022 for the jail to return to “pre-pandemic procedures,” including eight hours of out-of-cell time per day and restoring programs and visits.

Yet, the conditions remain dangerous, torturous, and fatal in the jails, as evidenced by the wave of recent deaths. The consent order sets the bar low, focusing on the severity of the conditions amid the coronavirus, while the jails have long bred a violent culture and deprived its residents of basic human rights. 

Adrian Perry, a Philadelphia Bail Fund organizing leader, speaks about her time incarcerated at the jail

Several women spoke up at the press conference. Adrian Perry, a Philadelphia Bail Fund organizing leader who spent time in the jail, described her own experience. As a lesbian woman, she was forced to endure humiliating strip searches from other women, despite expressing that this violated her rights. She spoke about the constant denial of basic items, like pads and soap. “Don’t forget we’re people,” she said. “And you are not only [affecting] the people who are behind the bars but you are affecting their families. So you are not just incarcerating one, you’re incarcerating a whole family.”

Lucian Martin, another organizing leader with the Philadelphia Bail Fund, served four months in the county jail and asserted that the jail—as it operates now—inflames the public safety crisis in our communities. “The treatment that is going on in there is not conducive to positive [transformation],” he said. “I go in and I come right back out. I am your neighbor. I shop at the same stores you shop at. I eat at the same food stores you eat at. My kids probably go to school…with your kids…So it is imperative that we all know that the treatment that is happening is not making us better human beings when we come out. And you don’t want us to be angry. You don’t want us to commit crimes. So to combat that, it needs to start inside of the jail.” 

In jails with freezing temperatures, extended lockdowns, raw sewage flowing through the block, brutal violence, broken cell locks, few functioning emergency buttons, rat and mice infestations, and deprivation of showers for over 40 days—the 4,600 people incarcerated in the jails not only do not receive any assistance to positively transform their lives, but they face the threat of death, torture, insanity, and abuse on a daily basis.

“War has been declared upon our incarcerated men and women of Philadelphia,” Martin proclaimed. “As their friends and family, we are their only hope for survival. Their last reinforcements! So, every battle we fight must be fought with ferocious cohesiveness.” 

Andre Simms, an artist with the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project
(YASP), performs a spoken word piece at the press conference

To view more photos from the press conference, click here.

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