PHILADELPHIA (CN) – The constitutionality of conditions at Philadelphia’s most populous jail is on trial here in Federal Court.
Hundreds of current and former inmates sued the city, challenging conditions at jails run by the Philadelphia Prison System.
Lawsuits from six men, representing a cross-section of the larger pool of jail-condition cases, have been selected for trial. The first, each of which is expected to last about two days, began Wednesday.
The claims in the case brought by inmate Marcellous Minnick are emblematic of many of the inmate cases.
Minnick was convicted of rape in 1998, then arrested on sex charges in 2009, for which he’s awaiting sentencing, according to court records.
With 3,090 inmates, the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF), on 25 acres in northeast Philadelphia, is the largest jail in the six-facility, 8,800-inmate Philadelphia Prison System.
Minnick claims that since September 2009, when he entered CFCF as a pretrial detainee, he’s been subjected to unconstitutional overcrowding – an allegation that echoes claims by hundreds of other inmates.
Hundreds of pretrial detainees say their constitutional rights were violated by the “systematic triple-celling” of inmates – placing three inmates in a cell designed for two.
Concomitant to that practice is the use of “boats” – vinyl shells used as a bed in cells housing three people.
Those boats, the inmates say, are necessarily placed within inches of the cell toilet, exposing them to urine and fecal pathogens while they sleep.
Triple-celling, an attorney for the inmates wrote, “leaves an unconscionably small amount of unencumbered space within the cells,” facilitating the spread of infectious disease.
It’s uncertain how a verdict in Minnick’s case, and the other five cases selected for trial, will affect the hundreds of jail-condition lawsuits consolidated before Senior U.S. District Judge Norma Shapiro.
“These are the first six trial plaintiffs and their cases are being heard on an individual basis,” attorney Gerald Williams, of Williams Cuker, said in the courthouse lobby.
But the verdicts in those cases could guide Judge Shapiro in deciding how to deal with the remaining lawsuits, and might also spur the City of Philadelphia – the lone defendant in the case – into changing the way it houses inmates.
Before opening statements, Judge Shapiro told an 8-person jury, which appears to have no African-Americans on it, “Everybody, even people who are in prison, are entitled to certain standards of behavior.”
She added: “This is a case that essentially involves overcrowding and its consequences.”
Attorney Williams, for the inmates, told jurors that the case “is not about the crimes of Marcellous Minnick,” who had changed into street clothes and, hands shackled, hobbled into the courtroom before the jury arrived.
Williams said that CFCF, where nearly 70 percent of inmates are pretrial detainees, “had more prisoners than it could humanely house.”
“The triple-celling at CFCF was accompanied by and caused other problems,” Williams said.
He said the conditions at CFCF were “deplorable,” with “rats and mice and vermin running through the cells where people live.”
Williams said Minnick came to CFCF with a degenerative hip disorder and a hernia, and was not given timely access to medical care.
“Instead, he was put on the floor of a crowded cell,” Williams said, referring to the boats, which he described as “plastic cases in which a mattress is put on the floor.”
The unsanitary conditions at CFCF caused Minnick to develop dermatitis, Williams said.
Amanda Shoffel, an assistant city solicitor, did not deny that triple-celling and boats are used at CFCF. But she said those practices aren’t unconstitutional.
“Nobody wants to triple-cell people. It’s not an ideal solution,” Shoffel said.
But she told the jury, “No one person has to spend an inordinate amount of time in a triple cell.”
Some factors are beyond the control of jail operators, she said. One is the increase in the number of inmates in the jail system.
Shoffel said the city has used “progressive and creative methods and innovations” to deal with Philadelphia’s teeming inmate population, which grew from 7,446 inmates in December 2010 to 8,805 inmates on Thursday, July 26, according to figures provided by the Philadelphia Prison System.
“The question for you is not to determine whether the system is operating in a constant state of perfection,” it’s to determine whether the conditions Minnick encountered at CFCF were unconstitutional, Shoffel told the jury.
“The only injury which he is going to allege he received from the prison is a rash,” Shoffel said.