July 8, 2021 – Today, prisoners in Philadelphia’s Federal Detention Center (FDC) concluded a case filed against the facility in April 2020, which alleged that the federal jail was not doing enough to protect its population from the spread of COVID-19. The agreement to end the case comes after the FDC has made COVID-19 vaccination freely available to all prisoners and staff and has agreed to show all prisoners a video explaining the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccination, following persistent advocacy from the petitioners in the case.
The Federal Detention Center in downtown Philadelphia houses nearly 900 people, the large majority of whom are pre-trial detainees, and employs about 230 staff members. In April 2020, we began representing prisoners at FDC Philadelphia in a suit against the facility, along with pro bono counsel from Dilworth Paxson LLP and All Rise Trial & Appellate, alleging that the government was doing too little to protect prisoners from COVID-19 and mitigate the risk of rapid spread.
The case helped lead to extensive efforts to promote vaccination in the facility and answer prisoners’ concerns about vaccines. To provide accurate, independent, and relevant information on the importance of COVID-19 vaccination in jails, all FDC prisoners have been shown a video documentary produced by the MacCarthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law, featuring medical professionals and formerly incarcerated individuals explaining the safety and efficacy of the vaccine and encouraging prisoners to accept it. The video also features U.S. Congressman Bennie Thompson and NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson.
COVID-19 vaccination is now available to all FDC prisoners and staff, and cases in the facility have been rare in recent months.
“FDC Philadelphia is in a much better position now than it was last April,” said Ben Geffen, Staff Attorney at the Public Interest Law Center. “Everyone in our criminal justice system has the right to basic personal safety, and we are happy with the progress that the FDC and the Court have made in addressing our clients’ concerns about how COVID-19 has been handled.”
In late November 2020, the facility experienced a widespread outbreak of COVID-19, during which more than 20 percent of FDC prisoners were infected. Initial vaccination delivery in the facility involved a large disparity between prisoners and staff, with 13 prisoners and 131 staff receiving vaccinations as of March 5, 2021. Responding to this case and through agreement with the petitioners, FDC Philadelphia has worked to address these disparities by ensuring that the vaccine is universally available to inmates and undergoing an extensive public health education campaign. As of today, 452 prisoners and 185 staff have been vaccinated for COVID-19.