PHILLY.COM: Opening up prison records part of reform mayoral candidates support

Last year, the Daily News reported that guards at the city-run Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility refused to take inmate Mike Brady to the prison infirmary despite pleas that he was sick. After he collapsed, sources told the paper he was maced by guards and finally dragged in a nearly unconscious state to receive medical attention. 

Brady died soon afterward.

His death is not an aberration. Over 170 inmates have died in the city's custody since 2004, and nearly $1 million a year is paid out to settle abuse and negligence suits. Late last year, a video surfaced showing guards brutalizing an inmate in the same facility, but the issue of reforming the city’s chronically dangerous, overcrowded and secretive prison system has barely registered in the mayor’s race thus far.

As with most issues, the three front-runners all say they are all committed to reform — but they illustrated their plans in broad strokes and lacked specific details about the reform.

State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams said he would save money and reduce issues of prison violence by tackling overcrowding.

"Developing a more strategic approach to incarceration will lead to significant cost savings, which can be reinvested in restorative justice programs and public education,” Williams said in an email. He added he would focus on bail reform and enhancing diversionary programs that could place certain offenders in social programs instead of city jails.

Former Councilman Jim Kenney, who is endorsed by the prison guards’ union, said through a spokesperson that he believes "reform is very much needed in our prison system,” and pointed to his work on City Council that revealed mistreatment by the city’s medical services contractor, Corizon Health.

Lynne Abraham gave the most detailed response, suggesting annual retraining and tighter screening for corrections officers was needed to reduce “life-threatening events” and that more detailed, public reporting was necessary to ensure criminally abusive guards were dealt with.

But prisoner advocates seemed unsure that a candidate like Abraham — who has increasingly been tied to her past work defending police officers accused of corruption in court — could be trusted to really implement reform.

"We should judge the candidates based on their records and their concrete plans for reform, not on their campaign-speech promises,” said Thomas Dichter of prisoner advocacy group Decarcerate PA. 

Dichter added that “bringing transparency and accountability to the Philadelphia Prison System will be a critical responsibility for our next mayor” and stressed that transparency in cases of abuse and cutting down on the number of people in jails simply because they couldn’t afford bail were the most crucial issues to address.

The three front-runners all said they were in favor of making currently unobtainable Internal Affairs documents generated in cases of inmate assaults by guards more public and working with the District Attorney’s office to prosecute abusive guards. Only Williams alluded to addressing the issue of pretrial inmates stuck in city jails because they couldn’t make bail.

The union representing 2,270 guards in the city’s prisons isn't interested in any of the candidates’ plans.

"I don’t think any abuse is happening in the Philadelphia Prison System,” said Lorenzo North of the prison guards’ Local 159. “I don’t think that reform is needed that much in the prison system, although I do think the leadership of the prison system should be reformed.”

North said his union had already endorsed Kenney for mayor, but that he was willing "to sit down with all the candidates to address what he described as low morale among the corrections officers he represents and a “lack of respect” by prison administrators.

He also said he is opposed to any plans to increase access to records related to abuse by guards.

“I’m against it because you’re putting officers in harm's way. We had officers being met by people’s family because they there was alleged abuse of an inmate,” North said. “Corrections officers are in more danger than the police."