PHILADELPHIA—There were no corrections officers assigned specifically to watch the housing unit of a Philadelphia prison when two inmates escaped Sunday night, and no armed perimeter guards were on duty as the men broke through the prison’s fence, a correctional officers union official told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Days later, authorities are still searching for the two men—including one who is facing charges in four murders. The men were gone for nearly 19 hours before officials knew they were missing from the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center.
The city’s prison department is so understaffed that they have not had the armed perimeter guards on duty during that specific nighttime shift for eight or nine months, said David Robinson, president of the public service employees union’s District 33 Council that represents the correctional officers.
When the prison is fully staffed, two corrections officers would be assigned to each housing unit. But with recent staffing shortages, the prison has regularly only had one officer assigned to housing units. When other officers don’t report to work, or the prison reaches critically low staffing levels, one officer might be assigned to monitor multiple units, Robinson said. That’s what happened the night the men escaped, he said.
“I’ve been talking about the staffing and safety issues for years and seemingly being ignored. I’ve been saying how something is going to happen, and now that something has happened, so are you listening now?” Robinson said. “Of course I’m not saying that the commissioner took a key and let them out, but vital posts were cut that could have prevented this.”
In a statement late Tuesday, the executive staff of the department “categorically denied” claims that the executive office had closed posts due to a staffing shortage and that those closures enabled the escape.
Philadelphia Prisons Department Commissioner Blanche Carney said during a news conference Monday night that headcounts conducted at 11 p.m. on Sunday, 3 a.m. on Monday, and 7 a.m. on Monday reportedly showed that all prisoners were accounted for, and prison staff did not become aware of the escaped inmates until about 3 p.m. Monday. Prison officials said there was an ongoing investigation reviewing staffing assignments and security tapes.
Ameen Hurst, 18, and Nasir Grant, 24, escaped from the center, one of several prison facilities clustered together along State Road, around 8:30 p.m. Sunday by cutting a hole in a fence surrounding a recreation yard, the Philadelphia Department of Prisons said.
“We have protocols in place and those protocols were not followed,” Carney said Monday. “That yard should have been secured, and the fence not breached.”
Mayor Jim Kenney said that they want to find out exactly what happened. “Clearly the system screwed up and people didn’t do what what they’re supposed to do,” he said.
City officials said they were investigating what protocols were not followed and how the counts did not turn up the missing inmates until the next day.
But Robinson and others, including former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart and prison monitors have all complained about the worsening staffing levels and the potential dangerous situations that come along with it. The department is a little more than 800 officers down, which is about 40 percent below the city-approved deployment plan to safely cover the jails that house about 4,300 men and women.
“Those vacancies put a huge stress on the officers present and on the day-to-day function of the jails,” said Noah Barth, the prison monitoring director for the Pennsylvania Prison Society, an independent organization that monitors conditions in jails and prisons across the state and advocates for humane conditions for incarcerated people.
Barth said he didn’t have access to the staffing logbooks, but said monitors for the society had previously reported issues with reported falsifications in the recreation logbooks and in laundry logs. Multiple incarcerated people in different units described being forced to sign the recreational time logbooks and then were not given that time out of their cell. Those prisoners described guards saying their phone privileges would be taken away if they complained.
Most of the reports from the society and accompanying recommendations have been met with denials or skepticism from department leaders, Barth said.
And the staffing shortages mean new officers are working extended overtime shifts.
“Literally yesterday, I had a cadet call me. He just graduated last month, and he said to me, ‘I don’t want to quit, but I don’t want to die either,’” Robinson said. “And I want to say hang in there, but I can’t tell him stay if he feels he isn’t safe.”
Robinson said the council issued a no confidence vote on Commissioner Carney on May 2, and it was a unanimous vote from membership.
Philadelphia police said Hurst was arrested in March 2021. He’s accused of shooting and killing a man on Christmas Eve 2020, said Frank Vanore, Philadelphia police deputy commissioner of investigations. The other three shootings happened in March 2021.
“He’s a very dangerous individual from what we know, and we are looking for the public’s help to get him back,” Vanore said at the news conference.
Grant was being held on conspiracy drug charges and conspiracy weapons charges, Carney said. The inmates were housed in the same unit, but different cells, she said.
Robinson questioned why an inmate facing charges in four murders wasn’t being housed at the Curran-Fromhold Corrections Center, which has a concrete wall rather than a fence.
By Claudia Lauer