Judge Says She Won't Free 400 But Sets Deadline For Prison Space

Posted: February 16, 1989

U.S. District Judge Norma L. Shapiro yesterday backed away from her vow last month to speed the release of 400 Philadelphia prison inmates, but at the same time ordered city officials to provide additional jail space by the end of next year - with or without a new criminal justice center.

Shapiro, sounding frustrated by the uncertain status of a proposed new 440- bed holding facility in Center City, said she "will not tolerate any delay" in providing the additional jail cells called for in the project.

"I want to state a firm position," Shapiro said. "There will be 440 beds by Dec. 31, 1990," the court-imposed deadline for completing the project to relieve prison overcrowding.

The judge gave city officials until March 31 to submit plans for providing interim jail space to meet the December 1990 deadline. Among the options the city might consider, Shapiro said, are hiring private contractors to house some inmates or anchoring a "prison ship" in the Delaware River.

"As far as I'm concerned, you can reopen Eastern State Penitentiary, whatever that takes," she said, referring to the long-abandoned prison in the city's Spring Garden section.

Mayor Goode, citing $25 million in potential cost overruns, last month put construction of the proposed criminal-justice complex on hold. He said the city was considering various possibilities, including building the complex elsewhere, redesigning it and turning it over to private developers.

Even if construction were begun immediately, city officials acknowledged yesterday, the new jail would not be completed until December 1991, a year behind schedule.

"It is hard to comprehend why we are at this juncture at this time," Shapiro said testily.

Deputy City Solicitor Richard Gold said afterward that the city has discounted the possibility of reopening Eastern State Penitentiary, but said, ''We're looking at the option of a prison barge, which they use in New York. We're looking at all available options."

Shapiro disappointed inmate advocates by not following through on her vow of last month to speed the release of 400 Philadelphia prison inmates to relieve overcrowding.

"I am intensely disappointed that the judge has failed to act," said David Richman, an attorney for the inmates, after yesterday's hearing.

Richman said a continual rise in the city's inmate population in recent months has "swamped the prisons' ability to provide basic services" and has ''created a human tragedy that's expanding on a daily basis."

At a hearing Jan. 9, Shapiro promised to reduce the number of inmates by at least 400 in coming weeks, largely by ordering the release of inmates imprisoned on warrants for failing to appear for court. "We will have a release program. I am determined to get the job done," she said at the time.

When Shapiro made that announcement, the inmate population stood at 4,274 - more than 500 over the court-imposed limit of 3,750. The prison census yesterday had reached 4,517.

Shapiro said the District Attorney's Office had strongly objected to releasing inmates who habitually miss their court dates.

Assistant District Attorney Sarah Vandenbraak had argued that the releases would undermine the court system, where the number of defendants failing to appear in court has risen sharply since the prison cap was put in place.

The releases would have been the largest since June, when 256 inmates were released from the city's four adults' prisons in a controversial move to relieve overcrowding. Since then, Shapiro said, she has become the victim of a vicious mail campaign.

The judge said she had received a number of letters from an unknown person ''who is not pleased with the conduct of the court." Apparently, the same person is now sending letters to inmates under her name, referring to them as ''animals" and denouncing their alleged crimes.

Shapiro made only a passing reference to the problem, asking lawyers to assure inmate leaders that she was not the author of the abusive mail. The judge declined later to discuss the matter with a reporter.

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