PHILADELPHIA — Four men who had been incarcerated in Philadelphia jails died over the last two weeks, raising the death toll to 18 people this year.
It is the highest mortality rate in recent memory at city jail facilities that have been beset during the pandemic by assaults, riots, severe staff shortages, a federal lawsuit, and a grand jury investigation. The city's jail mortality rate is now more than double the most recent national average, recorded by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Jerome Lyles, 62; Bartholomew Gottshalk, 52; and Angel Torres-Rosado, 42, were all incarcerated on nonviolent charges, court records show. The causes of death have not yet been determined by the Philadelphia Medical Examiner's Office. A fourth person, who was hospitalized Dec. 16 and died on Dec. 24, had a preexisting health condition, according to city spokesperson Kevin Lessard. Lessard said he was unable to release further information about that death as an investigation is ongoing.
This year, the jails, which house about 4,600 people on State Road in Northeast Philadelphia, saw at least three homicides, two suicides, and four deaths ruled accidents related to drug intoxication, according to the city.
Lyles, a father of three from South Philadelphia, had been jailed on $10,000 bail on charges related to writing bad checks. Wylene Johnson, who has a 12-year-old daughter with Lyles, said her family is "heartbroken."
"It's like they put you in there and they don't even care about you," she said. "You go in there healthy, he was only in there a week, and they called and said he died. We're still trying to wrap our heads around that. My daughter is devastated. She wakes up crying because she misses her dad so much."
The families of the others could not be reached for comment.
Lessard said the city does take precautions. "The Philadelphia Department of Prisons provides medical assessments for newly admitted individuals and continues treatment of incarcerated people with various preexisting health and chronic conditions," he said in an email. "PDP makes every effort to treat the individual in the stage of their medical condition and preserve life."
This month, a group of civil rights lawyers who sued the jail on behalf of incarcerated people asked a federal judge to hold the Philadelphia Department of Prisons in contempt — and, for the second time in six months, to impose sanctions in the form of a payout to the city's nonprofit community bail funds.
U.S. District Court Senior Judge Berle M. Schiller, who is overseeing a consent order resulting from that lawsuit, had set a deadline of Jan. 22, 2022, for the jails to return to prepandemic procedures, including restoring programs and visits and allowing people eight hours a day out of their cells.
But in the contempt filing, the plaintiffs said prisoners are still being locked in for days on end. Due to a 400-person staffing shortfall, they said, prisoners now faced "degraded and dire conditions of confinement, denial of necessary medical care, increased violence and deaths in the incarcerated population, and related violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments." They laid blame on jail administrators, who had "not provided hazard pay, increased staffing, or reached a workable accommodation with the union."
In affidavits included with the filings, prisoners lamented filthy and violent conditions.
One, Jaime Wright, 27, said he went more than three months without stepping outdoors, and faced frequent danger. "I saw a guard beat an inmate in the face with a large can of mace and punch him in the head. The inmate's face was swollen and bloody," Wright alleged.
In response, lawyers for the city said that Schiller's order was invalid and overreaching, and that the prisons are doing the best they can to keep people safe in the pandemic.
The city spent $41 million on overtime during the pandemic, Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney said in an affidavit, and hired 143 new security staffers.
"The issue of staffing is nationwide in the field of corrections and we are continuously working to hire," Lessard added in an email.
In regard to the lockdowns, lawyers for the city said the prisons have carefully balanced the need to allow people out of their cells with COVID mitigation precautions. They added that courts have previously ruled that incarcerated people are constitutionally entitled to only one hour a day out of their cells.
"The recent developments of the omicron variant highlight the extent to which PDP simply must have reasonable control over its operations to maintain the flexibility required to deal with this pandemic and keep its population safe," they added.
Reuben Jones, an organizer with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund and the #No215Jail Coalition, said the number of unexplained deaths in the jails highlights the need for an official response — and an independent investigation.
"The way it's playing out with folks inside is almost criminal in itself," he said. "The violence happens when folks have been locked up for weeks at a time. That's the scary part for me, the lack of security, because realistically some folks are going to take advantage. There's a lot of vulnerable people inside."