[Artwork by FERNANDO BOTERO]
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following first posted to Phawker on July 22nd, 2011
BY JEFF DEENEY A couple months ago I was approached by a person in the midst of a major moral dilemma: This person works inside the Philadelphia Prison System, and claimed to have been witness to massive, systematic and ongoing abuses inside the institution. This person described the common practice among Correctional Officers (COs) of ganging up on troublesome prisoners in their cells and dishing brutal beatdowns to put them in line. The person described an incident where a prisoner was tied to a chair and a CO then went in on him Abu Ghraib-style. Sometimes Fight Club-style one-on-one fist fighting between COs and prisoners is even encouraged as a method of blowing off steam. Violence inside the prisons barely raises an eyebrow. This person is certainly not shocked or surprised by this morning’s report about a multiple stabbing inside Curran Fromhold, the city’s main jail, that left one dead and three injured.
Many prison employees are conflicted about the things they see on an almost daily basis, that they know are morally indefensible. These employees refuse to speak out about it because they fear reprisals both from the institution and the COs. A CO isn’t above slashing a loose-lipped prison worker’s car tires in the parking lot between shifts. Threats and targeted campaigns of sexual harassment against women employees aren’t out of the question, either. At the very least, COs can make a prison worker’s life miserable by exercising the almost total authority they have inside the system to bog down its works. Need a prisoner to come in for a health check up? He’ll have to be transferred between blocks, and the COs control those intra-system movements. COs are tight, they stick together and they talk. A prison worker labeled a snitch can find prisoners they need to contact forgotten about, lost in the shuffle, preventing the prison worker from doing their job and the prisoner from getting services inside the system.
The institution itself, from what I am told, is a black box. It keeps an iron grip on information coming into and out of the prisons. Speaking to the press is forbidden; would be whistle blowers fear losing their jobs. Hence the moral dilemma; many working inside the prison would love to tell their stories but most of them don’t earn a lot of money and live check-to-check. Losing a job in this down job market would be catastrophic. It’s easy to ask how someone would choose their job over justice when it’s not your job on the line.
Philadelphia news media know nothing about the Philadelphia Prison System. This morning’s story, circulated among multiple outlets in nearly identical wording, was a prison public relations press release reprint. I would argue that the newspapers, especially, have been completely asleep with respect to prison issues while these same issues have been the focus of many national magazine writers and reporters at other major papers.
I could go on with the details; the “troublesome” prisoners targeted for CO beatdowns often aren’t troublesome at all, they’re severely mentally ill. They can’t control the behavior COs don’t like such as making too much noise, making unanticipated movements. They get beatdowns anyway, though they don’t know why they are being beaten. When these mentally ill prisoners are taken to the prison psych hospital they are held in solitary confinement, stripped naked, forced to sleep on a slab and eat on the floor with their hands. The prison says such degradation is necessary to prevent suicides. I would argue that it’s a costs savings measure; prisoners could be monitored for safety without resorting to these tactics if the prison was willing to commit the necessary amount of staff to do it. It just easier to strip someone, put them in a hole and hold them there until they’re willing to say they’re not going to kill themselves or someone else in order to be released. Many prisoners report saying these things just to get away from the conditions on the unit, though they remained psychotic and unstable after leaving it.
This same prison worker source provided details about illegal drug and contraband activity inside the prison which is corroborated with reports I’ve heard from former prisoners. Some COs are actually very close with some prisoners; they came from the same neighborhoods, even maybe ran with the same corner crews at one point. These corrupt COs make arrangements with the prisoner’s street associates and family members on the outside to deliver drugs and contraband like cell phones.
Currently, a cell phone goes for $500 inside the prison. The deal goes down like this: a prisoner tells the corrupt CO that they want a phone; the CO contacts the prisoner’s family or street associates on the outside to relay the message. These parties deliver the CO’s cash fee, along with the contraband to be delivered. The CO brings the contraband into the institution. As far as drugs, it’s well known that substances like PCP, weed, coke and heroin get openly traded and used inside the prison. Prisoners coming into parole and probation routinely test positive for the substances, though they were never out of state custody at any time during their transfer between the two systems. It’s worth noting that the stabbing in the news this morning happened during a narcotics shake down.
Just to be clear, the prison worker I talked to does not want to be contacted by reporters — it’s just too dangerous to speak out and so I swore to protect this person’s identity. All of the information here I believe to be true and is corroborated by reports from ex-offenders I know. Assuredly, the institution will categorically deny all of this. Therefore, let this piece serve as a starting point for local reporters who might finally decide that prison issues deserve serious ongoing attention from the press, and are willing to dig into the story in a way I cannot. There is a lot to report on, here. This morning’s stabbing story is only the tip of a very large iceberg of corruption and systemic abuses that have been going on for a very long time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney writes about urban poverty and drug culture for the Atlantic Monthly.