- Associated Press - Friday, June 5, 2020

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - A federal judge has approved a consent order requiring better access to soap, face masks and cleaning supplies to settle a portion of a lawsuit brought against Philadelphia seeking better coronavirus protections and improvements of other conditions for prisoners in the city’s jails.

The consent order comes as the city announced it had completed about two weeks of testing all of the more than 3,800 asymptomatic prisoners housed in its jails for coronavirus, and finding 223 positive cases. The city said the jails will move into their own yellow phase in the coming weeks as a result - meaning lockdown conditions will be eased and prisoners will start to be allowed to leave their cells for more activities.

The consent decree approved Friday will require the city’s prison department to provide increased access to hygiene products by giving inmates free soap, clean towels, daily showers, access to cleaning products and four face masks each. Prison staff will also be required to wear face masks.

City Solicitor Marcel Pratt said in a statement Friday that the prisons department had largely implemented these measures, resulting in what he said was a low rate of asymptomatic infection. He said the agreement codifies the measures.

The city reported one inmate had died during the pandemic, a female inmate who city officials said had underlying conditions. City Manager Brian Abernathy said 198 inmates with symptoms had previously tested positive for the virus.

The lawsuit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project and several city law firms on behalf of prisoners. It had sought increases in safety measures and if those could not be met, the release of all prisoners over the age of 55.

Lawyers said portions of the lawsuit seeking better conditions including time out of cells, access to attorneys and others will continue in court and conditions will continue to be monitored.

“We still remain highly concerned that the severe long-term lockdown conditions, where people spend over 23 hours a day in a space the size of a bathroom, are having detrimental effects on the people in prison, and we will continue to seek relief in court on the remaining issues,” Su Ming Yeh, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, wrote in an emailed statement.

Philadelphia officials noted in the city’s announcement that it will begin moving prisoners to the yellow phase, that more activities like medical appointments will start to be held in common areas outside of prisoner cells as part of that gradual plan. The announcement said all newly admitted prisoners will continue to be tested as well.

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