Five Years Ago I Warned That ‘The Philadelphia Prison System Is Violent, Predatory & Deeply Corrupt,’ Yesterday The Feds Finally Took Action


[Artwork by ALEX FINE]

BY JEFF DEENEY Back in the summer of 2011, I wrote about an acquaintance who worked in the The Philadelphia House Of Correction on State Road who was having trouble getting up in the morning and going to work. It seemed like each day brought some unbearable new horror story of violence perpetrated against prisoners by the Corrections Officers (COs) tasked with maintaining order in the facilities. Much of the disorder, the person claimed, on the intensely overcrowded cell blocks was in fact driven by crews of COs that operated like organized crime syndicates. Working with drug dealers on the outside they arranged with associates on the inside to move drugs and other contraband into the facilities. The profit margins were irresistible; for $500 a CO would bring your cell phone in. For more money, they’ll bring drugs.

Yesterday, a major federal investigation resulted in charges against Philly COs. I ask you to read the details of the case, then read what we published here on Phawker five years (SEE BELOW) ago and see if the similarities aren’t uncanny, right down to the $500 for a cell phone figure.

Recently, I’d heard about drug users that spent more than a year and a half locked down on State Road, where the city’s labyrinthine jail complex sits in Northeast Philly, using enough heroin to keep a bundle a day habit fed for the duration of their sentence. PCP, weed, pills; any drug you can name, I could point you to someone who copped it on a block in CFCF. Ironically, using drugs will get a prisoner stuffed in the hole, sitting for weeks in solitary confinement. Yet it’s been an open secret since at least as long as I’ve been a social worker in Philly that the sheer quantity of drugs available on State Road could only get there one way: With assistance from prison employees.

In 2011, I wrote what I could about the abuses and corruption on State Road, which you can find republished below. No prison employee would risk talking about it on the record for fear of retaliation, being labeled a snitch by COs who wouldn’t hesitate to resort to property destruction and threats of violence to protect their drug racket. All I was able to do was float a kite on this blog, revealing just enough to paint a grim picture of life inside the black box on State Road. I essentially begged local reporters to take the prison beat in Philly more seriously. The kind of investigation it deserved was beyond my capacity as a social worker who freelance writes on the side. It required the resources and institutional sway of a major publishing outlet.

In the years since, I’m happy to say that at least nationally prison issues have exploded as a focus of major journalism projects. The Marshall Project’s intense dedication to prison issues and the New York Times work on Rikers Island stand out as major contributions. There is a movement now in Philadelphia to block the building of a new prison that may succeed; this was inconceivable even five years ago. But people are coming around. They finally are starting to understand. We are flushing billions of dollars we could give to our schools down a drain of brutality, corruption and state-inflicted trauma. The only reason it has persisted so long is because the state has been so adept at keeping it a secret.

May the good work continue. May all the black boxes be pried open.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney writes about urban poverty and drug culture for the Atlantic Monthly.