Prison costs, crowding strain Philly resources
September 17, 2012By Holly Otterbein
Philadelphia spends more on prisons -- $231 million last budget year -- than it does on libraries, parks, City Council, the district attorney's office, the board of ethics, and licenses and inspections. Combined.
From 2009 to 2011, the prison population finally dropped after quadrupling for over nearly three decades. But now the prison population is soaring again, says Philadelphia Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla.
"We've seen increased overtime. We've had to staff areas that, formerly, we didn't have to occupy," Giorla said. "More people come through the door, you have more missions. You do more intake medical screenings, you do more mental-health evaluations.
"Across the board, all of our costs have increased."
The prison population sank to below 7,700 inmates last spring. That helped save the city more than $7 million in overtime, according to an analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts. With an eye on shrinking budgets, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were talking about sending fewer people to jail. It made prisoners' advocates such as Angus Love hopeful.
"Even the tea party people see this as a failed government program," Love said.
Last year's cost overrun $4 million
But by last week, there were nearly 9,200 inmates. That's 40 percent more people than the prisons were built to hold.
The uptick raises questions about whether Philadelphia, which is plagued with violence, has the will or ability to lock up fewer people. For the budget year that just ended, city taxpayers spent $4 million more on prisons than planned.
Giorla says following a spate of retirements, he's short about 300 correctional officers, driving up overtime. But Love, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, believes that overtime costs are rising because the city is pinching pennies where it can.
""The city has a choice -- either employ more people or use overtime. And employing more people is a more costly option because you have to pay benefits," Love said. "I don't know how alert a guy is after a 16-hour shift."
Giorla denies this, and says that the city has given him the OK to hire 100 more correctional officers. Despite the population bump, he says, Philadelphia is still providing quality services to inmates.
"We increased the medical staffing to handle that because we know we can't do it with the existing staff," Giorla said. "We increased the mental health staffing to meet that need."
But prisoners rights' advocates such as David Rudovsky say conditions in the prisons are getting worse. About 1,600 inmates are living in crowded three-man cells built for only one or two prisoners.
"They're very small cells to begin with. Bunk beds, one on top of the other. What they do is they put in what they call a blue boat, which is basically a plastic form that fits on the floor where the inmate has to sleep and that's picked up during the day," Rudovsky says. "The problem is, there's very little room to put it. The person's head is about a foot from the toilet when they're sleeping, and you can imagine the problems that causes."
Inmates sue over conditions
Hundreds of recent inmates, represented by Williams, Cuker and Berezofsky, have sued Philadelphia because of overcrowding. They say the city's prisons are so jam-packed that they have failed to treat inmates for diabetes, gunshot wounds, even cancer.
Giorla says he can't comment on pending litigation.
"All I can say is our opinions differ," he said.
The population is up because of two new crime-fighting measures. First, Mayor Michael Nutter has demanded that the courts crack down on suspects found with illegal guns by demanding higher bail. Secondly, the new Bench Warrant Court has been created to get tough on defendants who skip trial.
Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison says both initiatives are badly needed. In the past, it was widely known there were no real consequences for suspects who didn't show up for court and paraded through the streets with illegal guns, he says.
"People have to understand that we've got to do something drastic in order to change that perception," he said.
Gillison says the measures will lower the population over time. But Rudovsky says overpopulated prisons create additional, more costly problems.
"Per capita, we lock up more people in our city jails than any other major city in the United States," he said. "And the more people you put in, the more we don't have for parks, education and libraries."
House arrest suggested as alternative
Public defender Tom Innes says many of the fugitives are nonviolent, and there are other, cheaper ways to deal with them, such as house arrest.
"What the court system has decided is to choose one way," Innes said. "That way is costing them."
Philadelphia will be working with the courts to consider alternatives if the population continues to rise, Gillison says.
What he's hoping, though, is that the new policies will have their intended effect and the headcount will drop. In fact, he wants to do something that would make a real dent in the prison budget.
"My goal has been the same since the day I took this office," he said. "I need to blow up a prison."