Philly prison union wants more transparency about COVID-19 cases among staff

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A corrections officers' union leader is calling for more transparency concerning COVID-19 infections among staff in Philadelphia prisons. The call comes as inmate infections nears 60.

“We need to know the number of quarantines and we need to know the number of positive cases within the Philadelphia Department of Prisons,” said Eric Hill, business agent for Local 159.

The union represents 1,800 corrections officers and staff serving Philadelphia prisons and detention facilities. 

He said they wrote to the Mayor’s Office and to the Philadelphia Department of Prisons requesting information regarding the testing, quarantine and the number of positive COVID-19 infections among his member correction officers. 

He said they got no response as concern among prison staff grows by the day.

“They are nervous,” said Hill. “I get dozens of calls a day. In fact, my phone starts ringing at 4 a.m.”

On Tuesday, the Philadelphia officials reported 58 COVID-19 infections among inmates in Philadelphia jails. 

That’s up from just 12 cases on April 1. 

Managing Director Brian Abernathy told reporters during Tuesday’s afternoon briefing that the city would not release numbers of police, fire, prisons or other city workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 to protect their privacy.

“I’m not sure how it is in your best interest for us to report police officers or other city staff, for you all to write about it,” he told reporters. “Why don’t you release the numbers of cases from your newsrooms or own departments.”

Abernathy said the city would continue to review its policy in the future, but for now, it would hold firm.

Hill said the information they want — just total numbers — will help, not hurt corrections officers. 

“We are not contesting the privacy. We don’t need the names of employees,” said Hill, “but we need to know for our own protection.”

Hill said the union also has concerns regarding rotating placement of corrections officers to quarantined areas, as well as to the efficacy of personal protective equipment. 

He claimed the prison officials gave officers a thin, one ply, face mask made of cotton.

“It provides zero protection,” said Hill. “I tested it at home and almost anything passes through. It’s made of sheet material.”

Hill said prison officials have amended the policy to allow staff to bring their own masks, as long as they are not black.

“Color shouldn’t matter,” he said. 

Hill claimed he’s been invited to participate in a virtual meeting with Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney, the Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations director Monica Marchette and Local 159 president Gregory Trueheart and others.

Hill said union officials have confirmed at least two positive COVID-19 cases among its members.

They have asked other members who are quarantined, gotten tested or tested positive to contact the union.