When Philadelphia’s prisons are so jam-packed that inmates have sued for relief, why jail nonviolent misdemeanor offenders at all? The Philadelphia Daily News asks that question, saying the issue is more timely than ever in a system where inmate deaths have been creeping upward as the city’s total prison population has declined. Seventeen inmates have died already this year, the most since 2007, when 20 died. This year’s dead included one man murdered allegedly by his cellmate, two men who committed suicide, one man whose cause of death remains undetermined and 13 others whose deaths were ruled “natural,” caused by health problems or addictions. The decade’s toll is 168 inmate deaths since 2005.
The inmate population has fallen from a peak of nearly 10,000 in 2009 to about 8,000 today. Philadelphia still has the highest incarceration rate of the nation’s 10 largest cities. Six inmates who died this year, most of them charged with misdemeanors, could have gotten out of jail for $500 or less. “The bad luck of the draw is that some people can’t afford to pay even low bail. So then they stay there not because we think they’re too dangerous to be released or won’t show up at trial, but because they can’t afford to pay even a low bail. For those people to die [in custody] is really problematic,” said attorney David Rudovsky, a leading prison reformer. The city’s jails were built to house just 6,500. Conditions are so cramped – picture three inmates squeezed into cells meant to hold just one or two, a practice known as “triple-celling” – that reformers like Rudovsky repeatedly have sued the city and won court-ordered remedies to ease crowding.