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Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2014.
Feature

A Letter to Pope Francis

You are about to enter Philadelphia’s largest jail. Here is what you should know.

Y our Holiness,

You are preparing to visit the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in northeast Philadelphia, where on Sunday morning you will speak to a group of jailed men and women. We assume you know that your visit — like the one made a few months ago by President Barack Obama to El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma — comes at a particularly acute moment of focus on the country’s criminal justice system and its problems. Although much of the press coverage of your visit has been about the chair you will sit in (prisoners are building it), a local magazine has wondered whether your visit will “shame City Hall into fixing its atrocious prison problem.”

Activists, civil rights lawyers, and many of the men incarcerated at Curran-Fromhold hope your visit will call attention to the jail’s woes, which include published videos of beatings by officers, as well as much-litigated conditions of overcrowding. Jail commissioner Lou Giorla hopes your visit will help promote the jail’s goals of “community ties and family reunification,” parts of his attempts to make sure men and women who leave jail do not return.

The two sides to this story are broadly reflective of the current national conversation on criminal justice. Since you have added your voice to that conversation, at least for the moment, we’d like to share with you — and the audience that will be following your every step — what we have learned about this jail. Although it houses only 3,000 of the 2.2 million Americans currently incarcerated, Curran-Fromhold is as clear an illustration of the current issues facing the American justice system as you could ask for.

B eginning in the 1970s, policymakers around the U.S. responded to high crime rates by lengthening sentences and toughening enforcement, inaugurating what the National Research Council recently called a "historically unprecedented and internationally unique" rise in incarceration. Philadelphia played a role in this story through mayor Frank Rizzo, a former police commissioner nicknamed “Rizzo the Raider.” First elected in 1971,he trumpeted harsh policing, and once said during a campaign, “I'm going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot."

Ever since the 1970s, the city has faced lawsuits from civil rights attorneys on the subject of overcrowding in the facilities, arguing that inmates are subjected to “dangerous, unsanitary, severely overcrowded, degrading, and cruel conditions of confinement.” The latest of these is Williams et al. v. City of Philadelphia, resolved in 2008 and then reopened in 2012. Right now, a federal court is allowing investigators for the plaintiffs to assess conditions. “I’m sure they’ll clean up [Curran-Fromhold] for the pope’s visit,” David Rudovsky, the lead lawyer on the overcrowding lawsuit, told us.

Ironically, Curran-Fromhold was opened in 1995 in part to deal with overcrowding. But by 2001 the Philadelphia Inquirer was reporting the system could no longer “keep pace with arrests,” a problem, the newspaper noted, that had hit jails in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and other large cities as police focused on making frequent arrests for low-level crimes. Many of the men and women arrested for these lesser crimes could not make bail, so they stayed. From 1999 to 2008, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, “the percentage of bed-days in the Philadelphia jails consumed by pretrial inmates on an annual basis rose from 44 percent of the total to 57 percent.” In 2009, the Philadelphia Prison System, designed to hold roughly 8,000 people, was holding more than 9,000.

The numbers don’t capture how these jails feel, though. Lawsuits against the conditions at Curran-Fromhold have described how three prisoners are sometimes housed in cells designed for two. The odd man out sleeps in a plastic cot on the floor called a “blue boat.” One inmate, Everett Keith Thomas, scribbled on a handwritten federal complaint in October 2014, “I awakened to find mouse feces on my face and blanket in the blue boat.” Jail officials say they are careful never to keep an inmate in a triple-cell for more than 45 days.

The jail has set up bunk beds in the storage rooms. The overcrowding is a concern for the correctional officers. “When you can't secure the inmates, anything can happen at night,” Lorenzo North, the head of the Local 159 union, which represents correctional officers, said in 2006.

“It’s still dangerous,” he told us last month. Curran-Fromhold, built to hold 2016 prisoners, now holds 2851. One man currently incarcerated at Curran-Fromhold, Sylvester Paskel, vented in a letter to us about the conditions at the facility and enclosed a handwritten poem called “Will Things Change???” Here are a few of his lines:

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“So don’t be fooled by the powers that be, Pope Francis, it’s all a facade, They may pull the wool over those who rule, But they can’t hide the truth from God!”

Y ou are probably aware that over the last few years there has been a major shift in the politics of criminal justice throughout the U.S. Philadelphia is no different, and city officials have begun to look at criminal justice reform for its own sake — not just to satisfy judges and civil rights lawyers.

Last year, the city received $750,000 from the U.S. Justice Dept. to improve services for former jail inmates as they reenter the community. In May, the city was one of twenty to receive a grant of $150,000 from the MacArthur Foundation as a part of their Safety and Justice Challenge, which the city is using to analyze its criminal justice data and try to find ways to reduce the jail population. (If MacArthur is impressed, the city may be selected to receive up to $4 million for this project). In July, the city’s likely next mayor, Jim Kenney, indicated that he might push for Philadelphia to eliminate cash bail for some pretrial defendants, allowing them to be supervised in the community rather than locked up, further easing the burden on the jail system.

“There’s overcrowding and abuses, and you can find that in any agency, but there’s also a lot of innovation going on, and it’s having an impact,” Lou Giorla, the commissioner of the Philadelphia Prison System, told us. “As you know, Philadelphia had a persistent and stubborn high crime rate, and we’re not where we want to be, but...we looked at various subsets of the population, veterans, mentally ill, probation violators, areas where we thought people didn’t need to be confined, or not for as long.”

The city has increased use of house arrest and GPS monitoring and created specialized courts for veterans and people with mental health problems that aim to connect these groups with services in the community so they are less likely to commit more crimes. Giorla also touted district attorney Seth Williams’ pilot program, called The Choice is Yours, which “offers nonviolent felony drug offenders a chance to avoid prison sentences and instead receive education and workforce training, along with social services and supports.”

It is hard to imagine a bigger divide in rhetoric between Rizzo, the onetime mayor who talked about criminals as “vermin,” and Giorla, who worries that “people want the criminal justice system to fix all of our problems” and believes “we’ve got to take a look at what’s criminal in this country; a kid puts his hand in the shape of a gun and they say ‘lock him up.’”

You happen to be catching our country at a particularly rich moment of reassessment, and many — both jailers and jailed — hope you will contribute to that moment.

Sincerely,

The Marshall Project