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Philadelphia Jails Have Black Mold, Rats, Poor Heating, Say Women Held There

The Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, which recorded and published the complaints, paid for the release of some incarcerated women on Saturday.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

After receiving complaints about Philadelphia jail conditions from women held there, a bail fund group spent more than $240,000 to release 19 women on Saturday.

Candace McKinley, lead organizer for the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, says she has heard complaints from women that the jails are infested with rats and roaches and have black mold. Some have no heat, McKinley said the women told her.

The women whose release the group secured were being held pretrial, meaning they have not yet been convicted of a crime. McKinley said the goal was to release as many people as possible who were sitting in jail because they could not afford to pay bail.

“We’ve been really focused on getting people out of these conditions as much as we can,” she told The Appeal.

In August, the Philadelphia Department of Prisons moved about 200 women out of the Riverside Correctional Facility, which opened in 2004, and into other jails in the city—the Alternative and Special Detention Unit, Alternative and Special Detention Modular Unit (Mod 3), and the city’s Detention Center. 

The department said the move was done to try to maximize “operational efficiency” and coincided with moving more than 500 men to Riverside.

McKinley said she has received reports from women in Mod 3 that there was mold in the ventilation system and that the women have limited access to clean water or showers.

“We have inmates literally crying, screaming because they’re cold,” one woman held in the basement of the Detention Center said in a phone call, recorded and published by the bail fund group last Thursday. “I woke up this morning and showed the nurse that half of my head had turned pale, pink and pale, because I’m so cold.”

In another call, published in August, a woman being held in the Alternative Special Detention Unit said, “My life is in danger.” 

“Like, I need to get out of here. I need your help,” she said.

As of Tuesday, there were more than 4,200 people held in jails in Philadelphia. Nearly a quarter of those people were being held simply because they could not afford to pay bail, as of the end of last month.

Most people had cash bail set so high they were unlikely to be able to post it even with the help of a bail fund. Of the roughly 1,000 people being held pretrial at the end of November who were not charged with murder and had no other legal reason to be held, like a probation violation, just over 200 had cash bail set below $50,000. 

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the number of people held in U.S. jails pretrial has doubled between 2002 and 2017. Cash bail also disproportionately affects Black people: In 2002, the most recent year national data was collected, Black people accounted for 43 percent of people held pretrial, despite accounting for only 12 percent of the U.S. population.

Pretrial incarceration can also lead to a person being more likely to plead guilty, according to a 2018 American Economic Review paper. Even short stays in jail pretrial can have negative effects on a person’s life: It could mean losing a job or making the job hunt more difficult, the paper states.

Several cities have recognized these harms and moved to eliminate cash bail. 

In January, both San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and State’s Attorney Sarah George in Chittenden County, Vermont, directed their staffs to not seek cash bail in any circumstances.

Newly elected Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón announced last week that his office—the largest prosecutor’s office in the country—will stop seeking cash bail next year. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner stopped seeking cash bail for many nonviolent crimes in February 2018.

McKinley said the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund has bailed out close to 530 people since its inception in 2017. Most of that work has occurred this year: Since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, the organization has spent roughly $3 million to help bail out nearly 330 people.

She noted that the group—like bail funds nationwide—saw a large increase in donations after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May and the subsequent uprisings across the country against police brutality and systemic racism in the criminal legal system. 

“We can impact change on the local level,” McKinley said. “We can change the way cash works or even the existence of cash bail and pretrial detention in Philadelphia.”