Charter Change would replace Advisory Board, Establish New Entity with Investigative Powers
PHILADELPHIA — Today, Councilmember Helen Gym introduced legislation to establish a new oversight structure for Philadelphia prisons, a Prisons Oversight Board, to ensure the safety, security, and dignity of incarcerated people and corrections officers. The proposed Charter Change would replace the current Advisory Board with a staffed civilian board with a defined mission, independent oversight, and investigative powers.
“Safety is our top concern for those housed in our prisons and those who work there,” said Councilmember Helen Gym (At-Large). “With today’s introduction, we are taking a critical step in establishing an oversight body that has the power to ask questions and get answers, with a commitment to community engagement, transparency, and change that has been sorely lacking.”
29 people have died in Philadelphia’s jails in the last two years, a rate 77% higher than the national average. Since the start of the pandemic, civil litigation cases related to conditions in Philadelphia’s prisons have proliferated, resulting in costly fines and settlements. High vacancy rates in the Department — with open positions increasing by nearly 60% to 644 vacancies in the last year — has caused outcry from both advocates and workers over serious safety issues. In a survey by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, over 90% of incarcerated people reported corrections officers being largely absent on the weekends.
Last month, Prison Advisory Board Member Sara Jacobson resigned her position, writing that “Philadelphia’s prisons need independent oversight and a board with the power to act. The Prison Advisory Board provides neither.” Calling the current board a “farce,” Jacobson highlighted infrequent meetings, lack of independence, and limited public access.
“The City of Philadelphia needs a truly independent prison oversight body — one that has a professional staff and the power to investigate systemic problems in the Philadelphia prisons,” said Susan M. Lin, Partner at Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP. “This legislation, which creates such an independent oversight body, will help improve the safety and humanity of the prisons and will encourage prison officials to address issues in the prisons before they turn into long, drawn out lawsuits.”
“Oversight of Philadelphia’s prisons is greatly needed, and we applaud Councilmember Gym’s ambitious proposal,” said Claire Shubik-Richards, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Prison Society. “We look forward to working with City Council to make increased oversight a reality.”
“This faith-based organization wholeheartedly supports Councilmember Helen Gym’s bill to establish a new oversight structure for the Philadelphia Prison System,” said Rev. Robert Collier, President, Black
Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity. “The proposed Prisons Oversight Board (POB) which would replace the existing Board of Trustees will provide more transparency, as well as allow for more support for both those who are incarcerated and corrections officers. In addition, establishing a POB would ensure a higher level of safety for all parties. We can no longer continue to operate with the mindset that business as usual is acceptable, since the end result is not producing the needed progress.”
“Meaningful oversight of our county jails is essential and long overdue for a city like Philadelphia, where incarceration weaves so thoroughly through so many of our families and communities,” said John Rowland, Organizing Campaigns Manager at the Abolition Law Center. “Jails are inherently traumatizing and unsafe, and our staff has seen firsthand how catastrophic and enduring the effects of a jail system without oversight have been for all too many Philadelphians. It should be a basic right for the public to know what’s going on inside its jails at all times, and for its community members to have input into all of their functions. This amendment would correct a woeful lack of oversight in the prisons and should be considered a win not only for transparency and good governance but also for the long-term health and well-being of our communities.”
“Philadelphia POWER Live Free and its Ending Mass Incarceration Team support the change to the Philadelphia City Charter to be introduced by Councilmember Helen Gym to establish a Philadelphia Prisons Oversight Board,” said Rev. Art Brown, Team Leader, POWER Interfaith. “We support the new Philadelphia Prisons Oversight Board’s mission to ensure that safe and humane conditions exist and are maintained for all incarcerated citizens and prison staff. The prison needs to be a place for rehabilitation and redemption, not for carceral punishment. We want public safety for all and consider those in jail a part of the Philadelphia community.”
“Can you imagine what it’s like to have your son or daughter telling you about something that’s happening to them, and the prison telling you over and over again it’s not happening?” said Patricia Vickers of the local prisoner support group, the Human Rights Coalition. “We haven’t been able to trust the prisons from day one because of things like that, and this oversight board will help us to know the truth–which means we’ll know how to support our loved ones and keep them safe.”
Once passed by City Council, the charter change would appear on the ballot for approval by voters. Accompanying legislation to set board composition and selection as well as further define the board’s powers and duties is expected to be introduced this fall.
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