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decided: January 16, 1986.


Consolidated Appeals from the Orders of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia, Trial Division, Civil Section, dated June 22, 1984, and October 11, 1984, entered at No. 2437 February Term, 1971. No. 167 E.D. Appeal Docket 1984


Barbara W. Mather, City Sol., Richard J. Gold, Divisional Deputy City Sol., August V. Sellito, Guy P. Vilim, Asst. City Sols., for appellant.

David Rudovsky, First Asst. Defender, Donald Bronstein, Asst. Defender, for appellee.

Gregory R. Neuhauser, Deputy Atty. Gen., for Com. of Pa.

Eric B. Henson, Deputy Dist. Atty., for Philadelphia Co.

Dennis R. Biondo, Pittsburgh, for Allegheny Co.

James M. McNamara, Doylestown, for Bucks Co.

Frederick M. Wentz, Norristown, for Montgomery Co.

John S. Halsted, West Chester, for Chester Co.

Matthew S. Donaldson, Jr., Media, for Delaware Co. Bd. of Prison Inspectors.

Nix, C.j., and Larsen, Flaherty, McDermott, Hutchinson, Zappala and Papadakos, JJ. Zappala and Papadakos, JJ., each files a dissenting opinion.

Author: Nix

[ 509 Pa. Page 459]


This Court has assumed extraordinary jurisdiction of appeals by officials of the City of Philadelphia from two orders entered by the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in the wake of protracted litigation concerning conditions in the Philadelphia prison system. The first order established timetables for the reduction of the prison population and the elimination of double and triple-celling of inmates. The second held the appellants in contempt for noncompliance with those schedules and imposed monetary sanctions. Our review herein is limited to a determination of the proper standard to employ when adjudging whether the overcrowding of prison inmates amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. U.S. Const. Amend. VIII. For the reasons which follow, we must vacate the contempt order and remand this matter to the Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings.


The tangled history of this case spans over fourteen (14) years. In February 1971 five (5) prisoners in the Philadelphia prison system filed a class action in equity against City officials*fn1 in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas seeking injunctive relief from conditions of confinement alleged to violate the prisoners' constitutional and statutory rights. A three (3) judge panel heard extensive testimony and, on

[ 509 Pa. Page 460]

April 7, 1972 issued an opinion and decree nisi holding that the prisoners' conditions of confinement violated their constitutional and statutory rights*fn2 and amounted to cruel and unusual punishment under the federal and state constitutions. The panel's conclusion that conditions in the prison system were unconstitutional was based upon findings of overcrowding coupled with inadequate facilities and staff. Specifically, it was found that cells were drafty, cold, damp, dirty and infested with roaches and other vermin; that a shortage of guards increased the danger of assault; that an effective inmate classification system was lacking; that personal hygiene, medical and psychiatric needs were inadequately attended to; that food served did not provide adequate nutrition; and that drug addicts suffering withdrawal symptoms were not given proper treatment. The panel ordered the defendants to take immediate action to improve conditions and, in addition, ordered the appointment of a special master to assist the court in fashioning appropriate relief. After the defendants' exceptions had been dismissed and the decree made final, the defendants appealed to the Commonwealth Court. That court affirmed the denial of exceptions except as to the portion of the decree providing for the appointment of a master. Hendrick v. Jackson, 10 Pa. Commw. 392, 309 A.2d 187 (1973). This Court allowed an appeal on the question of the propriety of appointing a special master and reinstated the decree in its entirety. Jackson v. Hendrick, 457 Pa. 405, 321 A.2d 603 (1974).

On June 15, 1976 the Court of Common Pleas issued an interim remedial decree requiring the defendants to establish a "cap" on the prison population based on a "one man, one cell" principle. This decree also mandated the release of prisoners held in default of One Thousand Five Hundred Dollars ($1,500) bail or less where necessary to maintain the prison population at the level established. The defendants again appealed to the Commonwealth Court. While that

[ 509 Pa. Page 461]

    appeal was pending the parties executed a "Stipulation and Agreement" with the approval of the Court of Common Pleas on February 4, 1977. That document provided for a population "cap," a prisoner release mechanism and numerous improvements in prison conditions. The June 15, 1976 decree was affirmed per curiam by the Commonwealth Court on October 17, 1977.

The parties entered into further "Stipulations and Agreements" on October 31, 1978 and May 12, 1980. The three agreements signed between 1977 and 1980 resulted in numerous improvements in prison conditions. As described by the Court of Common Pleas, those positive steps were as follows:

The health and psychiatric care delivery systems have been revamped, with the addition of staff and improved facilities. In 1980, the new Medical Services Wing was inaugurated at the Philadelphia Detention Center, vastly improving the health care facilities for both medical and psychiatric cases. This contrasts markedly with the dank and cheerless block once used at Holmesburg for that purpose.

The staff complements in social services, addictive disease treatment, and correctional services have all been augmented . . . .

Disciplinary procedures have been codified, and an inmate grievance system . . . is being implemented.

Censorship of mail has ended, with strict rules for the opening of mail for contraband only in the inmate's presence. Rules for searches of the ...

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