What to Know
- A rash of deadly violence has prisoner advocates asking for better conditions inside Philadelphia jails.
- 200 correctional officers have quit since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to city records.
- The jail population dropped below 4,000 amid the coronavirus outbreak in 2020, but has since climbed back above 4,700.
The last time Eva Diaz spoke with her son, Frankie Jr., he was complaining about fellow inmates -- but looking forward to what he saw as his eventual release from the Philadelphia Detention Center.
“Next month, I go to trial. I know I'm going to beat this and I'll be home,” she recalled him saying Aug. 16 last year. “I'll be alright. Don't worry.”
But two days after their call, Eva Diaz got another call. This time, it was from a trauma doctor at Jefferson University Hospital.
“They just told me they found him unconscious and they had him at the Torresdale campus and that he was on a ventilator,” Diaz said.
Another inmate had beaten Frankie Diaz Jr., 30, leaving him brain dead. He died as a result of those injuries on Aug. 19.
Frankie Jr., who was in jail on drug charges, was the first of five homicides inside Philadelphia’s jails since August. Before Frankie’s death, the last homicide at the jails was in 2017.
“Where were the C-Os? Why are they not paying attention?” Eva Diaz now asked. "How did this happen?"
In an interview with the NBC10 Investigators, Philadelphia Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney said inmates have pent up frustrations from the COVID-19 lockdowns.
“Prior to the pandemic, we were a mass movement jail. [Now] inmates are spending more time inside their cells,” she said.
As for questions on staffing, she said it is a challenge.
Correctional officers are often calling out or taking leave time, leaving them shorthanded, she said. Plus, according to city records, more than 200 prison employees have left their jobs since the start of the pandemic.
Still, Carney said she has the minimum staffing required to man the jails-- even if it means mandatory overtime.
"The jails are safe," Carney said. “The bottom line is you want your staff to report to work. The more staff you have in the facilities, the better.”
But Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, is alarmed by what is happening inside the jails.
“Conditions at the Philadelphia prisons right now are dangerous. People are killing each other. People are dying,” Shubik-Richards said. Her group advocates for humane prison conditions.
All five homicides at the jails have been blunt force trauma deaths -- inmates beaten to death by other inmates, sometimes their own cellmates.
Shubik-Richards said the solution to decreasing death and violence inside the jails is two-fold: increase staff and reduce the prison population.
“Getting a safe staffing level is dependent on the correctional officers union and the city administration working together to solve the problem,” she said.
At the start of the pandemic, the jail inmate population was 4,662.
City officials started releasing inmates deemed to be non-violent, as a way to keep the jails safe from COVID-19. By April, the jail population dropped to 3,725. But it quickly rose back up.
The jail population has stayed at a steady 4,700 this spring. All while the number of prison employees continues to drop.
But knowing what is actually happening behind bars can be a challenge.
“Prisons and jails under the law and by policy are really these secretive places,” Shubik-Richards said. “We don't know what's actually happening inside unless they choose to tell us.”
The city prison department reports its death numbers -- broken out by manner of death-- to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
But no one checks the data. In fact, the state has a disclaimer that says: “DOC is NOT responsible for over or under reported figures by the counties. DOC posts the information that is provided without validation.”
A state Department of Corrections spokesperson said the state doesn’t have oversight of county facilities.
Carney, the prison commissioner, believes the city’s reporting is enough.
“We're very transparent with reporting that information,” Carney said.
The department has also been filling out the federally-mandated Death in Custody Reporting Act forms, which have the basics: name of decedent, time and date of death, location, race and ethnicity of decedent. It also leaves room for a short summary.
In Diaz’s case, the summary says: “On August 18, 2020, Inmate Diaz was assaulted by another inmate which resulted in his demise on August 19, 2020. The assault took place at the assigned housing unit (E-Dorm) within the Detention Center.”
Those forms are sent to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. But the PCCD doesn’t review them-- and isn't required to do so. It simply sends the forms to the feds.
The Department of Justice has struggled for the last several years to come up with a plan for how to process the death in custody forms -- required to be filled out by all law enforcement agencies who have a death in their custody.
But since last year, the federal government started collecting the forms. Currently the plan is to pull statistics from them, according to a department spokesperson.
With no oversight or review of deaths from the state or feds, the Philly prisons department is left to oversee itself, and determine on its own what changes-- if any-- are needed.
“No one wants to take on what's happening in county facilities,” Shubik-Richards said.
The District Attorney’s Office has opened criminal cases into all five homicides. And arrests have been made in at least three of the cases, including Diaz.
But those are criminal investigations, not a review of policies, staffing and management.
And it’s the latter that Diaz and other parents of deceased inmates want to see.
“I blame the city a lot. If they…would have been doing their job, my son probably would have made it,” Diaz said.