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City of Phila. Sued over Prison Overcrowding

Monday, July 24, 2006

As many as 25 to 30 men have been kept for days in a holding cell with a single toilet and no beds as detainees overwhelm Philadelphia's prison system, a class-action lawsuit filed Monday charged.

The suit comes just five years after state and federal courts ended 30 years of supervision prompted by earlier lawsuits over prison conditions.

The city - whose prison population has more than doubled since 1987 to about 8,800 - reopened a long-shuttered prison over the weekend to make room for the newest detainees.

Holmesburg Prison, which was closed a decade ago, is being used temporarily to hold prisoners during the intake process. Pretrial detainees have recently been held for days in police districts and the police administration building, sometimes without beds or access to lawyers or medical care, the lawsuit charged. Police holding cells are designed to hold people for just a few hours.

"It's intolerable to treat people that way, and there's something called the Constitution which says that you can't," said civil-rights lawyer David Rudovsky, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who filed Monday's suit as well as an earlier suit in 1971.

City Solicitor Romulo L. Diaz Jr. said the city has been aware of the problem, and working on it with judges, prosecutors and others, for more than a year. He expects that more money will be needed to hire staff and equipment and come up with alternative solutions, such as home-monitoring devices for low-level offenders.

The city currently spends $262 million a year on its prison system, up from $93 million in 1987 and $195 million in 2001.

Asked if the current conditions were humane, Diaz said, "I would say that they are less than ideal, and that's the reason why we opened up Holmesburg."

The four named plaintiffs include Lee Bowers, who was picked up for missing a family court hearing on June 23 and held for three days.

"He was in a holding cell with 25 to 30 other inmates, with a single toilet, no beds, no showers, no tooth brush or other personal hygiene materials, no access to medical care or medical screening, and no access to counsel or to phone calls," the suit stated.

During his 72 hours without sleep, he curled up under a steel bench, causing him to suffer a blood clot in his leg that sent him to the hospital for three days, according to the suit.

The suit called such conditions "dangerous, severely overcrowded, degrading, and cruel."

To house the steady stream of new arrivals, the prison system has resorted to three-man cells and has lodged inmates in common areas, thus restricting movement and increasing the amount of time inmates spend in lock-down, the suit charges.

"With the war on drugs, you have an inexhaustible supply of possible prisoners, limited only by the number of police you have," Rudovsky said.

Alternatives to incarceration should be considered for people charged with minor crimes and those nearing parole, he said.

According to Diaz, the courts also need to streamline the intake system so that suspects can get a bail hearing before they spend days in a holding facility.

He believes the city prison system - with a census of 8,799 on Monday - can safely house up to 8,810 people.

"So long as we're under that 8,810 number, we're comfortable we can continue to intake prisoners and detainees without having to hold them for longer than necessary at the Police Administration Building," Diaz said.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

(Copyright ©2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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