Philadelphia's jail population has fallen 27 percent from what it was two years ago, to about 5,700 inmates — and, for the first time in years, is holding consistently below the jails' 6,900-person capacity.

Yet overtime costs at the Philadelphia Department of Prisons have not followed a similar trajectory. They climbed to around $26 million for the year ending Jan. 31, according to internal reports obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News.

Staffing shortages, according to the reports, also led to frequent lockdowns at the city facilities on State Road — a condition that one man recently incarcerated at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, the city's largest jail, said meant he was frequently trapped in his cell all day long, a few times for 48 hours at a stretch.

The correction officers' union blames mismanagement and insufficient hiring, but Commissioner Blanche Carney said the real problem is widespread abuse of sick leave.

The situation appears to reflect a clash between an administration that's managing the largest downsizing in the history of Philadelphia jails — and union workers who have not bought in.

A new union contract finalized Monday will resolve many of the issues that led overtime costs to spiral, according to Carney. She's also hiring cautiously and working to redeploy staff from the 91-year-old House of Correction as it is depopulated; closing that facility, the oldest of the city's five jails, is a longer-term goal.

Lorenzo North, president of AFSCME Local 159, is not satisfied. He wrote to Mayor Kenney on March 5 asking him to replace Carney, who in 2016 became the first woman ever to lead the Philadelphia Department of Prisons.

"She has lost the support and respect of both supervision and staff," North wrote. "At the House of Corrections, the Warden is systematically understaffing the facility because Commissioner Carney refuses to permit use of overtime. … Short on staff, many housing units are in a state of constant lockdown. This angers inmates, engendering conflict with other inmates and the officers who guard them."

Brian Abernathy, the city's first deputy managing director, dismissed the letter. What's happening, he said, is "the commissioner has disrupted the status quo."

Though he acknowledged that the prison had been short a cadet class last year, he said the problem has been resolved with two new classes adding 80 officers to staffing rolls. Staffing fluctuates, but in January 2018, there were 5 percent fewer correctional officers and supervisors than there were in December 2016, according to the internal reports.

"We're balancing and leveling out. We're not going to have the staffing levels we had for a 9,000-person population," Carney said.

They said the arbitration award, to replace a contract that expired June 30, 2017, will resolve ongoing issues around abuse of leave. According to the arbitrators' decision, those included corrections officers calling in sick at the end of their shifts when assigned to stay on for mandatory overtime, and/or invoking family and medical leave when they were late to work.  Over the last year, according to Philadelphia Department of Prisons internal reports, corrections officers took 14 sick days on average, 14 vacation days, and 18 days of family and medical leave (a type of leave intended for occasions such as a serious illness or the birth of a child.)

But North said it was on Carney to manage staff more effectively. He pointed to Super Bowl Sunday, when so many workers called in sick that "we had people that worked 24 hours that day — 24 hours straight. She let it happen."

The result of the situation has been overtime costs that often exceeded $50,000 per day and, according to internal reports, widespread use of restricted movement.

For instance, in January, most areas of Curran-Fromhold were locked down for at least 130 hours; that adds up to about five days.

One man, Billy Bentley, estimated he'd been locked in his cell all day long at least 10 times in 2½ months at Curran-Fromhold. "You're always locked in. The guards don't even come to work. If it's raining outside, you're not getting on the phone. You're not getting in the shower."

The new contract might alleviate such conditions.

It includes clauses to rein in family and medical leave use, tie attendance to promotion opportunities, and create new disciplinary measures for staff who abuse sick time. In the past, they were suspended, but that only created further staffing shortfalls. (The contract also provides for a 3 percent raise effective July 1, 2017, and 3.25 percent raises for each of the next two years.)

Philadelphia Department of Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney in  2017. She says the real problem is widespread abuse of sick leave.
CLEM MURRAY
Philadelphia Department of Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney in  2017. She says the real problem is widespread abuse of sick leave.

Still, North said the problem runs deeper, citing friction from the top levels of management on down, insufficient hiring, and rock-bottom morale. Deputy Commissioner Robert Tomaszewski is engaged in a federal lawsuit against the  Department of Prisons, contending that the city discriminated by passing him, a white man, over for the job in favor of Carney — then retaliated against him for filing a complaint.

The administration takes a different view. Carney said she's deploying a "holistic approach," one that will hopefully better serve inmates, staff, and the city going forward.

The city is initiating two studies, one to plan the use of space on State Road and another to look at areas for cost savings in the prisons. This year, the city will start to see the financial impacts of a declining inmate population, saving $2.6 million as the Department of Prisons ends its outside housing contract.

Critics such as City Councilman Allan Domb have demanded larger reductions to the department's $256 million budget. In an interview, he said he thought that, at the least, food and health-care costs, should decline.

"I'm saying to the prison and the administration: Renegotiate whatever contracts you have based on this dramatic change in population."

Abernathy said more significant savings would come if the city can close the House of Correction. To do that, he said, the population will have to fall below 4,800.

"So many of our costs are fixed," Abernathy said. He tried to put it in terms the Condo King, as Domb is known, would understand: "Just because you have an apartment that's empty, doesn't mean you don't have a doorman."