Daniel Denvir is a Rhode Island-based contributing writer to CityLab and a former staff reporter at Philadelphia City Paper.
I started covering guard abuse at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility last fall. Here’s what I would tell Francis.
When Pope Francis visits Philadelphia's Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility this weekend, he will get a firsthand, if stage-managed, look at one of that city's most opaque public institutions.
Allegations of guard abuse of inmates at CFCF come up frequently, but public oversight at the facility is almost nonexistent. Detailed information about allegations of abuse and their investigation are confidential. Prosecutions for physical abuse are extremely rare.
The Philadelphia Police Department makes available relatively detailed information on Internal Affairs investigations lodged by members of the public thanks to an executive order issued in 1993 by former Mayor Ed Rendell. No such records are available when it comes to the city’s correctional facilities. The most Mayor Michael Nutter's office would provide CityLab was a list of generic allegations ("alleges several officers pushed"), the dates allegations were made and investigations closed, and whether or not the allegation was sustained—no names of the accused, whether any sort of punishment was meted out, or any real details at all included.
The city has paid out nearly $2.9 million in corrections-related civil rights settlements since 2010. According to the city, that's no cause for concern.
Michael Resnick, Mayor Michael Nutter's Director of Public Safety, emails that the number of civil rights complaints filed by prisoners "is hardly an epidemic" given that the city’s jails have "an average daily population around 8,100 and 30,000+ annual admissions."
But the dearth of public information makes it hard to know. In 2014, The Philadelphia Daily News found that use of force incidents had shot up dramatically in recent years, and prisoner deaths in custody had risen, as the city continued to pack prisoners into its overcrowded facilities.
The Daily News reported on two alarming cases. One was the death of Michael "Fat Mike" Davis, an inmate at the city's Detention Center facility who died after guards allegedly dragged Davis, heavy and in a leg cast, facedown to the mental health unit. They also reported on Mike Brady, a detoxing inmate who died after allegedly collapsing, being pepper sprayed, and then dragged to the CFCF infirmary by guards. Jail officials blamed Brady's death on a heart problem and didn't mention guard involvement.
"I'm not aware that the medical examiner ruled them as homicides or that they were suspicious deaths in any way," says Resnick.
According to the Daily News, the city settled a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Brady's family for $300,000.
"Pope Francis could have gone anywhere in the world, but he's going there," his mother, Karen Brady, told the paper. "I feel like he was sent there for a reason, and the reason for me is that he's blessing the ground that my son died on. Just his presence there is a blessing. I definitely have a sense of peace knowing that my son is getting a blessing, even though he never got last rites."
Resnick says that "just because there's use of force, it doesn't mean the use of force is illegitimate," and that it would be District Attorney Seth Williams's job to file charges in cases with evidence of abuse. Resnick did not speak to the significance of the uptick in use of force but said that facilities like CFCF "can be a hostile environment… sometimes officers have to use force."
"The people that we have there quite frankly now are some of the most violent people off of the streets of the city," says Resnick. "They continue that sort of behavior while they're in custody."
Resnick says it’s wrong to cherry-pick a small number of anecdotes to draw unfairly broad and negative conclusions about the city’s correctional system. But without greater public access to investigations of CO misconduct, there’s no way for the public to know how representative such troubling anecdotes are.
I started covering guard abuse at CFCF during my time as a reporter at Philadelphia City Paper last September, when I spoke to three social service providers who, during a visit to the prison, say they witnessed guard Tyrone Glover brutally attack an inmate, Marcellus Temple.
"I saw this officer punch this inmate," one witness told me at the time, "punch this young man in his face. He fell to the floor. You hear his head hit the concrete. And the officer then got on top of him and pummeled this man six or seven times."
"He commenced to beating this man to a pulp right in front of everybody who was invited into the prison," said another witness who, like the others, spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The initial hit was like a one-two. The boy fell. He knocked him out… his hands were straight on his side like you see on TV. Then the guard jumped on him and hit him like five or six more times... and just kept beating him. Nobody said, 'stop.' Nobody intervened."
The witnesses said that Temple appeared to pose no physical risk to Glover. What seemed most remarkable was that Glover engaged in such brutality in front of outside visitors.
At the time, Philadelphia Prison System spokesperson Shawn Hawes responded to questions about the Temple incident by asking me if I knew what Temple had been charged with—a shooting where an innocent youth was injured—appearing to suggest that he had deserved whatever he got.
But Temple, and not Glover, was charged in the incident. Glover stayed on the job.
"We conducted our own investigation of the incident with Marcellus Temple—and you know that Marcellus Temple is a violent felon, right?" said Prison Commissioner Louis Giorla in a recent interview.
Hawes told me that prison investigators spoke to all witnesses. Two witnesses told me they had never been contacted.
On any given day, the Philadelphia Prison System incarcerates roughly 8,000 people in multiple facilities. Just 25 percent are serving short-term sentences, according to Giorla. The other 75 percent are awaiting trial. Many are nonviolent offenders, drug addicts, and mentally ill people. The system is severely overcrowded, resulting in hundreds of prisoners being "triple celled," meaning that three inmates are crammed into a cell designed for two.
Soon after the Temple assault, I obtained a surveillance video depicting the same guard, Tyrone Glover, assaulting another prisoner, John Steckley. In this case, the video was clear: Steckley appears to be giving Glover a hard time about leaving the visiting room. But Glover punches Steckley first, and hard, and continues to beat him as other guards join the fray. Fair warning, this video shows a violent scene.
Steckley, the prisoner, was charged with assault in this incident. At Steckley's preliminary hearing, Glover didn't tell the truth: he claimed that Steckley had hit him first. That is false.
But Glover once again stayed on duty, supervising inmates.
"At our level we didn't determine that his conduct required immediate suspension," Prison Commissioner Giorla recently told me.
"Video evidence doesn't show the whole story," says Resnick, pointing out that we can't hear any audio.
District Attorney Seth Williams's office ultimately opened an investigation into Glover. When police are under investigation for serious wrongdoing, they are often taken off the street and put on desk duty. Hawes, the Prison System spokesperson, tells me there is no such procedure for COs.
Charges against Temple and Steckley were both eventually dropped. But Glover has never been charged, either with perjury or assault. Last week, however, the Prison System confirmed that Glover, who had been under investigation, had resigned his post. Although officials would not disclose why Glover resigned, according to at least one knowledgeable law enforcement source, he resigned under the threat of prosecution. As is their usual practice, the DA's office would not comment on a case they decided not to prosecute. But most of the time, when people commit assaults or perjury, they don't get to avoid prosecution by quitting their job.
Glover could not be reached for comment.
Recently, I asked Giorla how many COs have been charged with assaulting inmates since he started on the job.
"I'm not sure," he responded.
More than one? I asked.
I told him that I was only aware of one case since DA Williams took office, from this May: a CFCF guard had been charged after allegedly striking an inmate multiple times in the back of the head, knocking him to the ground, beating him, and spraying him with mace.
Was Giorla really confident that there were more?
"I believe so, yeah."
According to DA Seth Williams' office, that is indeed the only such case.
There are signs of reform. In January, the DA’s office confirmed a new policy requiring a formal review of witness statements and any video evidence of an alleged inmate assault on a guard before charging that inmate with assault—so to ensure, it seems, that it wasn't in fact the guard doing the assaulting. First Assistant District Attorney Ed McCann acknowledged at the time that the system for investigating and prosecuting correctional officer abuse has been broken. Defense lawyers agree.
"It is not uncommon for a corrections officer to allege an assault by an inmate in an effort to cover up the correction officer's own assault against the inmate," Defender Association of Philadelphia Northeast Division Chief Kristin Quinn told me last year, before the policy was put in place. Now she says that, in her experience, such wrongful prosecutions do appear to have declined.
According to data provided by the DA's office, prosecutors approved charges against 28 inmates who allegedly assaulted prison staff in 2014. So far this year, that number is just 10, meaning that they are on track to charge just about half the same number as last year. Still, Quinn says that while wrongful charges against inmates have declined, abusive guards remain unpunished by the DA.
Giorla says that the city is committed to reducing its prison population, and that a recent MacArthur Foundation grant is helping the prison system explore reducing the number of people held awaiting trial. However welcome that initiative may be, it doesn't quite qualify as forward thinking: This is the final year of Mayor Michael Nutter's second and final term in office, and the prison system has been dragged into court for years by civil rights lawyers complaining of overcrowding.
Giorla still maintains that there is no problem with investigating and disciplining physical abuse in his prisons.
"I believe there were some challenges in the past but I don't believe it's broken," he says.
The safety and wellbeing of Philly prisoners has evinced little interest from Mayor Nutter or the city council. Jim Kenney, the Democratic nominee for mayor, is considering a bail reform initiative to keep more offenders out of prison while awaiting trial. His campaign says that Kenney has not yet released a proposal to expand public access to CO records.
Pope Francis’ visit will help shine a light on a population that Philadelphia has long written off. No entrenched problem can ever be fixed as long it is kept in the dark.