On-Again, Off-Again at Holmesburg Prison


Holmesburg Prison interior. Photo: Abandoned America/Matthew Christopher

By Kris Hermes

After weeks of claiming that Philadelphia’s decommissioned Holmesburg Prison may be used as an alternative detention facility for arrested DNC protesters, the city just announced that it was abandoning the plan.

A day after the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story based in part on a June 16th Billy Penn report on the use of Holmesburg during the DNC this July, Philadelphia Prison System spokesperson Shawn Hawes told the Inquirer that there was enough space in other city jails to accommodate arrested protesters.

In an interview with The Declaration last week, Hawes said the city was prepared to use Holmesburg “if there are mass arrests during the convention.” She added that Holmesburg was being considered as a “back-up plan” to better process arrestees. “Protesters charged with the same thing could be processed and arraigned in-house together, so they will be easily identifiable and not have to be put into the general population.”

Backtracking on her earlier comments, Hawes cited a current daily prisoner population of roughly 7,500, and said “In the event of any arrest, we will first use other jails in the system.” However, in 2000, when Holmesburg was used to hold arrestees from the Republican National Convention (RNC) protests that summer, the daily prisoner population was under 7,000, less than it is today.

This on-again, off-again status has been consistent during the prison’s unique and troubling history.

Before the notorious, century-old Holmesburg Prison was officially decommissioned more than 20 years ago in 1995, it was the site of a 1973 prison riot in which the warden and deputy warden were killed. It was also home to “medical experiments” that took place between 1951 and 1974 in which the primarily African American prisoners were exposed to “doses of radiation, carcinogenic pesticides such as dioxin, psychotropic drugs and an assortment of infectious diseases.”

Ahead of the RNC, the city had announced a plan to deal with an expected surge of arrests. According to local civil rights lawyers, an informal agreement was made with city officials and the courts that Holmesburg would be a temporary holding facility and people charged with summary offenses would be quickly processed.

But, when hundreds of RNC protesters were arrested, the city ignored the plan and later denied there was any agreement. Instead, more than thirty arrestees with serious charges were held at Holmesburg for longer than two days in squalid conditions, without running water, functional toilets, or access to lawyers. The decision to detain arrestees at the derelict facility certainly raised the specter that the city was preventively detaining protesters and exacting punishment for their political action.

“Its lead-laden pipes and elevated level of airborne asbestos rendered the building and its four-foot thick stone walls, uninhabitable,” said Dave Bailey, an RNC arrestee taken by bus to Holmesburg. “But apparently not so uninhabitable as to preclude it from being used for activists and protesters.”

Knowing ahead of time what he was in for, Bailey joined with his fellow arrestees and refused to get off the bus, forcing the police to take them elsewhere.

Other protesters, however, had to spend multiple days at Holmesburg before being sent to other detention facilities. To bide their time, RNC arrestees “fashioned chess pieces out of bits of chipped lead paint and made a deck of cards out of their police citations,” according to journalist John Tarleton.

Just after the RNC protests, in October 2000, nearly 300 former Holmesburg prisoners sued the City of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, Dow Chemical, Johnson & Johnson, and Albert Kligman, a former Penn dermatologist who oversaw the prison’s medical experiments. The lawsuit alleged mistreatment and lack of informed consent among other violations, but it was dismissed in 2002 for exceeding the statute of limitations.

In the mid-2000s, in an effort to address the city’s overcrowded prison system, Philadelphia renovated the gymnasium at Holmesburg to accommodate at least 100 prisoners in a dormitory setting with air conditioning, according to Hawes. By 2009, with the city close to a daily prisoner population of 10,000, Mayor Nutter began exploring the idea of housing hundreds of prisoners at Holmesburg.

According to then-Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison, the city “never really closed it.” At the time, Prison Commissioner Louis Giorla said that Holmesburg was housing more than 200 prisoners.

Then, in 2010, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the city stopped using the gymnasium at Holmesburg to house prisoners.

However, Hawes claimed recently that Holmesburg is still used “whenever our population exceeds what we can accommodate in the normal jail system.”

With Philadelphia claiming it wants to avoid mass arrests, preferring to issue summary offenses instead, there’s hope that protesters need not ever see the interior walls of Philadelphia’s jails, let alone Holmesburg Prison.

But, some aren’t so sure and are preparing anyway. A local legal collective, Up Against the Law, will be staffing a hotline for protesters during the DNC, monitoring police misconduct (along with National Lawyers Guild Legal Observers), and recruiting criminal defense attorneys in case there are arrests.

“Thus far, the city and police officials continue to provide confusing and contradictory statements regarding dealing with protesters during the DNC,” said Jody Dodd of Up Against the Law, who also provided legal support during the RNC 2000.

“History and experience convince me that as legal activists, we will hope for the best, but we are preparing for all scenarios, including wrongful arrests, long detentions, and charges at all levels of seriousness,” continued Dodd. “We stand ready and prepared to ensure protesters are not abandoned in the criminal justice system.”

Kris Hermes is an activist, legal worker and author of Crashing the Party: Legacies and Lessons from the RNC 2000 (PM Press).

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