By Amaris Elliott-Engel
Of the Legal Staff
A federal judge has approved the settlement of a class action that alleged the conditions in the Philadelphia Prison System violated the U.S. Constitution and that inmates housed three to a cell did not receive essential services.
U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania gave the final approval to the settlement Aug. 5.
Surrick said that the latest litigation over conditions of confinement in the PPS appears to be breaking with past history.
"If one were to look at the 40-year history of prison litigation involving conditions in the PPS, one could conclude that plaintiffs face no risk in establishing liability," Surrick said. "Consistently over the years, both state and federal courts have taken the city defendants to task for conditions in the PPS that were caused by overcrowding and that failed to pass constitutional muster. Just three years ago, in Bowers v. City of Philadelphia … we concluded after hearing and after a site visit that conditions at PPS related to overcrowding were unconstitutional. However, as discussed above, since that time the city defendants have taken steps to reduce the prison population and to eliminate many of the problems caused by overcrowding. The results have been significant."
According to the Williams v. City of Philadelphia settlement agreement, the policies that have eased prison overcrowding have included consolidating probation and parole hearings in front of one judge, hearing some minor cases and related probation and parole detainers over video conference, and increasing the number of programs that divert low-level defendants into programs without prosecution.
While some courts, including the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, have held that triple celling may not be unconstitutional, Surrick said it was not a "long-term solution" to overcrowding. But the PPS plaintiffs, since they only spent up to 60 days in cells designed for two inmates but housing three inmates, might have had some trouble establishing that the current triple celling practice in the PPS is unconstitutional, Surrick said.
Under the settlement agreement, the city must provide data to the class counsel on a monthly basis over two years and allow the counsel and their experts to tour PPS facilities in which there is triple celling.
Surrick said it was reasonable for the city to settle the case for $45,000 in attorney fees and costs.
Plaintiffs counsel included Jonathan H. Feinberg and David Rudovsky of Kairys Rudovsky Messing & Feinberg, David Richman of Pepper Hamilton, Angus Love and Su Ming Yeh of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and Robert Meek of the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania.