Lawyers sue again over prison overcrowding in Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA – A year after a federal judge issued a scathing order over conditions at Philadelphia‘s crowded jails, the problem has only worsened, civil rights lawyers charge in a lawsuit filed Monday.

Three people are routinely held in two-bunk cells, leaving the third to sleep in a blue, plastic shell on the floor, inches from the toilet, they said. The overcrowding jeopardizes medical care and other basic needs of the record 9,300 people now in city custody, the lawsuit alleges.

“Our clients are being detained in unconstitutional conditions, and we think the court’s intervention is necessary to get the problems resolved,” lawyer Jonathan Feinberg said Monday.

Feinberg works with University of Pennsylvania law professor David Rudovsky, who filed a similar lawsuit last year as well as a 1971 complaint that led to court oversight of Philadelphia jails through 2001.

The prison census has grown from about 8,800 when U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick issued his order in January 2007.

New Mayor Michael Nutter wants to explore alternatives to prison for some nonviolent offenders and hopes to reduce recidivism through a program that offers tax breaks to firms that hire ex-offenders.

Nutter, who took office in January, also has asked his prison commissioner to outline other ways to reduce the prison population, a spokesman said.

Feinberg acknowledged Nutter’s interest in the problem and said he hopes the two sides can work together.

In a 76-page opinion last year, Surrick ordered the city to immediately provide prisoners with clean cells, toilets, showers, beds and medical attention. He allowed the use of three-person cells only as a temporary solution.

But the judge’s temporary injunction expired in the middle of last year. Today, about 2,000 to 3,000 inmates are housed three-to-a-cell, Feinberg said.

Monday’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of 11 inmates housed at four city jails, but seeks class certification on behalf of all city inmates.

The lawsuit seeks, as one remedy, a three-judge panel to review the potential release of some nonviolent offenders.

The city has 60 days to formally respond to the lawsuit.


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